Why the noise?

By Lorenzo

I am a single person and–due to an upbringing starved of physical affection or praise interacting with unfortunate adult experiences (the former making the latter both more likely and more likely to be of a traumatic nature)–am likely to remain so. I also like cafes, perhaps more than I should, given my low income. (Yes, I am an employer who is also on a low income; more common than folk might imagine.)

So, when I go to a cafe, I often read and/or write. For a while, that meant taking along my laptop; now it means my iPad. (Which has a rather nifty keyboard connected by Bluetooth; I love the sheer inventiveness of the modern world.) Between Kindle for Mac, iBook and ReaddleDocs, I have lots of books, pdfs and other documents to read on said iPad. (Dropbox is a wonderful thing; as is Baen Books.) I also often take notes during my reading.

Hence, it is more than a little irritating when waiting staff interrupt to ask you if you want something. It is bad enough when you are reading, but if you are typing away, you really don’t want to have your train of though interrupted or, worse, derailed. It is not as if I linger; I rarely spend much time after having consumed what I have ordered and, if I do, it will only be when there are clearly spare tables available. If I want something, I will attract attention. If I am typing away, or reading, I do not want to be interrupted by unnecessary interrogation.

That is, however, an occasional irritation. What is more omnipresent is the apparent requirement to have music playing in the background; often quite loud and with an intrusive beat.

Either people are at cafes with friends, and wish to talk. Or, like I usually am, they are on their own and wish to read or write. Either way, music is likely to get in the way if its loud or otherwise intrusive. Yet, that is often precisely what cafes inflict on paying customers.

It is not as if I dislike music. In the car, I listen to Joy FM in part because I (generally) like the music thereon. But silence, or the gentle hum of voices, can be refreshing too.

This was really brought home to me just recently. I have taken to sometimes patronising a new cafe in Yarraville which has a nice range of teas (I don’t drink coffee, I find it stops me sleeping). Its name and tone invokes Eastern mindfulness.

So, there I was, with my peppermint green tea, typing away and the proprietor interrupts my typing to ask if I want anything. To which the answer was no. (I always answer politely; perhaps that is a mistake.) She then puts on music–the quiet had been particularly pleasant–a loud, bouncy pop song. This was not mindful nor encouragement to the same.

I realise that the modern world treats loud as a virtue music should aspire to. Having heard plenty of live music which was perfectly fine without any electronic sound enhancement (speakers and amplifiers do not invoke the right atmosphere at a medieval feast), making music loud because you can does not impress me.

Being loud may have some ritualised group effect when the music itself is the draw. But where it is supposed to be an additive enrichment of the overall service, then having it be intrusive is not a positive. Background music is supposed to be precisely that.

Trouble is, background music is sufficiently subordinate to issues of convenience, quality and price that it is not likely to affect decisions to patronise a cafe on its own. So, there is little selective pressure to weed out the noise.



  1. Kerryn Goldsworthy
    Posted August 30, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Oh, I hear you. I love music, which is precisely why I hate this practice so much. I have asked that music in cafes or restaurants be turned down on a number of occasions, especially when it is mindless doof-doof as it so often is. Sometimes they say yes and oblige, but more often they say one of the following: (a) It’s for the staff, really; (b) We can’t, it’s all controlled by computer at head office; (c) We want to attract a particular kind of customer (translation: people under 30) who LIKES this music. Really there’s nothing for it but to find a place that doesn’t feel the need to blast your ears.

  2. Posted August 30, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Good sir, I can only commiserate with you in this difficult circumstance, and note that this same occurence has raised my dander many a time in cafeterias and public houses from one corner of the metropole to the other. Also, you are right.

  3. Posted August 30, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    I’m very sorry to hear that. About the lack of physical affection and traumatic events, that is. No one should grow up with that. But I’d venture to say that the people who own/run/work at the cafe are probably on low incomes themselves, and they’re not exactly thrilled that someone comes to use their wi-fi and sit on one peppermint tea, the margin for which probably wouldn’t pay for the time the wait staff spend wiping the table.

  4. Posted August 30, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Technology is pleasing in so many ways. But maybe it’s my training in classical music, maybe it’s my growing fondness for pub poetry readings, maybe my general inability to become proficient in any technological device that requires you to do anything more than flick an on-off switch, and hence my desire for simplicity in all things – I get irritated at so many uses of pre-recorded music, amplification, and so on these days. Here’s a recent example.

  5. Posted August 30, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Who said anything about using anyone’s WiFi? None of the cafes I regularly patronise offer free WiFi, and that is just fine. Also, i rarely just have a single drink, I often have a meal.

  6. kvd
    Posted August 30, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    So, the acoustic moved the ascetic to acerbic? I like the result; hopes music always intrudes you thereupon.

    (Studiously copied from your back lane. Sorries ’bout tha’)

  7. Posted August 30, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Younger people have grown up in a world of constant stimulation from the television, computers, music players smartphones, etc. It’s possible that to them the noise from the loud music is much less distracting, or perhaps even comforting to a certain extent. It may be targeted at the customers or it could just be that the staff are bored senseless and need something to keep themselves sane.

  8. Posted August 30, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Really there’s nothing for it but to find a place that doesn’t feel the need to blast your ears.

    And so, the exciting world of underground ‘Silence Speakeasies’ was born, in which patrons would gather to hear renditions of John Cage’s ‘4 minutes 23 seconds’ over and over again…

    BTW – ‘programmed by head office’! I can’t imagine anything more naff than being a person in cafe head office programming music to maximise patron intake. Guess that means they do it all the time.

  9. Mel
    Posted August 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]:

    Don’t be so bloody rude and presumptuous.

  10. Posted August 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I tend to use the explanation that technology has made us all lazy – hence the rise in ‘loud music’, and the overuse of background music in general. But perhaps there are other cultural trends going on here.

    Classical musical events could be quite rowdy, in the 19th century and before. Opera regularly had heckling patrons; young rakes with nothing better to do might sometimes even organise a riot, just to have a bit of a laugh. (In Tom Jones, for instance, one of Tom’s friends gets Tom to take part in just such a riot. One wonders if Fielding got up to any such larks himself).

    This culture gradually changed over the 19th century. In his Memoirs, composer and conductor Hector Berlioz praises Germanic audiences for quietly and studiously listening to the piece of music, often with the aid of musical scores. The late-romantics – especially Wagner – may have wanted to encourage this trend; in one of his books Stravinsky complains about Wagner making music into a kind of religious experience.

    So by the start of the 20th century the idea seems to have risen that people should listen quietly and respectfully to music; that heckling and impriopriety is to be frowned upon; and that the composer should be treated with a respect almost verging on the religious.

    In the early years of the 20th century (1933), G. K. Chesterton wrote –

    I have already remarked, with all the restraint that I could command, that of all modern phenomena, the most monstrous and ominous, the most manifestly rotting with disease, the most grimly prophetic of destruction, the most clearly and unmistakably inspired by evil spirits the most instantly and awfully overshadowed by the wrath of heaven, the most near to madness and moral chaos, the most vivid with devilry and despair, is the practice of having to listen to loud music while eating a meal in a restaurant… Also, as I have often pointed out, it is rude to everybody concerned. It is as if I went to hear Paderewski or Kreisler, at a concert, and started to spread out an elegant supper in front of me, with oysters and pigeon-pie and champagne, coffee and liqueurs. One is an insult to the cook and the other to the musician…

    No-one could be so gloriously cranky as Chesterton – but I wonder if, by the standards of a century ago, he would have seen any cause for crankiness at all?

    And then, of course, with the world wars and the rise of recording and amplification technology, change continued: the second world war especially did away with the last vestiges of Vienesse cafe culture and, presumably, many of the old musical hall and vaudeville traditions of performance.

    Recorded music has many advantages, but one is this – it’s much harder to think of yourself as being impolite to a recorded musician than a musician who is playing right in front of you.

    So maybe the cause of these rightly irritating phenomena is not necessarily laziness or aural overstimulation at all, it is changing cultural expectations about audiences, and how they will respond to music and its necessary companion, silence.

  11. Posted August 30, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, comment in moderation! (And I didn’t even post a link!)

  12. fxh
    Posted August 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Its not so much the mindless doof – dance music in a sit down place but the woeful quality of speakers in most places so that all that can be heard is an incessant scratching sound.

    Most places have speakers that ruin any music at all.

  13. Mr T
    Posted August 30, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Re: Music
    You sound like my Mum when i was a teenager in the 70’s
    You sound like me now. we must be getting old.

    Having soundly rubbished you fogeyness, I agree with everything you say

  14. Posted August 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    My niece (who studied music at the Conservatorium) told me a few years ago that in study after study, people link ‘louder’ with ‘better’, and that this has contributed to louder music being played in all sorts of places where it ought not to be.

  15. Posted August 31, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    We are losing the beauty of silence. It will come back though, all those headphones are making people deaf. Music is a two way street for me. I often use music to get my brain moving but once I”m going to stop hearing the music.

    Over recent months a friend of mine introduced me to a new musical trend: vocaloids. This is singing by computer with a back up band. Very Japanese. No silence here, like Mozart on steroids, notes everywhere. Yes, there are concerts with hologram like representations of nubile female teenagers singing these songs. It is a very strange and fascinating cultural phenomenon. As for me, I’ll stick to Joy Division thanks.

    Top Ten Vocaloid Songs

  16. Posted August 31, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Young people may or may not be used to persistent recorded music being played in cafes, bars, pubs, and other public venues… but when I was in my teens and twenties, I still grizzled about that sort of thing.

    I like to think that I was born an old grouch but maybe, just maybe, the young being accustomed to recorded music being played in the background in public areas is not as inevitable as you think.

    Incidentally it was only when I studied music at uni and got to know a number of other musicians – much better than me – that I discovered what frightful natterers they could be while someone else was playing.

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