Is my music your noise?

In the early 1900s, background music was used to motivate people in factories to work faster. Today, music is present in more or less all public spaces. And while it’s in the background, it’s not insignificant. Sound impacts us on many levels.

December 16, 2019

Sound makes us feel. Music, in particular, moves us. Think of the theme from Jaws where two alternating notes signal impending danger, and you get goosebumps. Or the powerful O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, which has become one of the most commonly used – and sometimes parodied – pieces of music in Western pop culture to build a dramatic mood in movies, TV shows and commercials.

"You recognize music quickly and associate it powerfully," says Julian Treasure, a leading figure in audio branding and chairman of The Sound Agency. Treasure designs “moodscapes” -– organic ambient sound textures specially designed for locations like malls, airports and offices -– and in addition to being a popular TED speaker, he travels the world to advocate conscious listening and designing with ears as well as eyes.

Handle with care


Sound matters, because we are affected by sound physiologically, psychologically, cognitively and behaviorally.

“Dance music at 140 beats per minute will accelerate your heart rate and breathing," says Treasure. "Sound affects us psychologically because of the emotions encoded into it or associated with it. It can be cognitively distracting depending on its density – in other words how much attention the sound calls for."

Behaviorally, music has a long tradition of influence. Muzak, a brand of background music, was used in the early 20th century to speed up the pace of work in factories. It pioneered today’s environment, where silence in a public space is often more the exception than the rule.

Music can be powerfully used if appropriately designed says Treasure. “But it’s often mindlessly deployed because of the incorrect assumption that we want music everywhere. We have to be careful. My music might be your noise.”

Is silence golden?

Because the public performance of recorded music (or piped music, as it’s also known) is a growing business, there is an entire industry trying to make the case that we like it. But according to Treasure, independent research isn't so cut and dried. While some love it, others hate it, and the rest are ambivalent.

Sometimes total silence is the right solution. In 2016, British retailer Marks & Spencer totally eliminated background music, a move that brought a chorus of approval.

There are also organizations that promote music-free environments wherever people go without the express reason to listen to it.

Environments like elevators? Not necessarily.

Elevator music

In elevators, adding sound such as music can be useful, says Treasure. “A few people together in a confined space can get uncomfortable in total silence. Pleasing, appropriate music could mask the sound of your tummy rumbling or provide a little privacy, allowing people to talk.”

Designed sound in an elevator ride can also enhance the overall experience and affect our mood. Sound can be interesting and even humorous.

“London’s Royal Festival Hall uses samples of human voices from bass to soprano in one elevator. As you ascend or descend, the voices and tones change with your level.”

Biophilic sounds such as gentle wind, water, and birdsong are almost universally popular, and recent research is showing that they actually enhance our wellbeing, making them relatively common choices when The Sound Agency creates its moodscapes for large spaces, from airports to offices.

Above all, Treasure calls for empathy and conscious listening to understand the effect sounds have on others.

“Good sound is good business,” he says.

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