Music: The New Addiction

Reprinted from the Victoria Times-Colonist, February 2, 1996.

by Peter Donnelly

The last time my son and I went skating at a local arena, the hard rock music was so loud that in order to talk to one another we had to put mouth to ear. When I finally asked one of the attendants if the music could be turned down, he looked at me with a puzzled expression and said: "What music?"

I am not making this up.

Music has become such a pervasive part of our lives that most people don't even notice it. It's no longer there to be enjoyed - it's there to feed an addiction.

Have you seen a hockey game lately? Every pause in the action is filled with recorded music. Even the moment of final victory, with the Stanley Cup held high, is underlined by the pounding rhythms of rock and roll, as if the cheers of the hometown fans weren't enough to define the moment. Baseball too - once the game of silences - is being punctuated by pop tunes between every batter, sometimes between every pitch.

When was the last time you were in a restaurant, a pub, a mall, a retail store, a health club, or a swimming pool and were allowed to enjoy the ambient sounds of the place, or quiet conversation with a companion, or the music of your own thoughts, without the clamor of a radio station in the background?

They're starting to feed it to passersby as well. These days it seems that part of the standard equipment for a new shop or restaurant is a set of speakers mounted above the front door, broadcasting the entertainment onto the sidewalk. I suppose it's seen as a sort of public service.

The fact is that music - usually loud and often tuneless - has become an inescapable presence in virtually every place of public assembly. The assumption seems to be that people can't enjoy themselves without some kind of acoustical stimulation. For many people, unfortunately, that just might be true. But for those who prefer quiet, or just normal people sounds, the world has become a hostile place.

No matter where you go on earth, it is now virtually impossible to find the kind of stillness that was commonplace a century or two ago. Much of this noise, it's true, is a byproduct of the machine age, but a great deal of it is deliberately created for consumption. It has become a drug, and our society is hooked on it.

As with some other drugs, the more you get, the more you need. The volume is increasing all the time. "Big screen, big sound!" advertises a chain of movie theatres. "Play it loud!" urges a maker of video game hardware. Boom cars proliferate. Nightclubs are so loud that staff have to wear earplugs. Outdoor concerts can be heard miles away.

Why is it happening? In the past, loud noises and music were for special occasions. They gave us a "kick." Now we want every moment to be special. Like the drug addict, we want to be high all the time. And like the addict, we no longer really enjoy the stimulus, but without it we feel an intolerable emptiness.

Don't get me wrong; I believe firmly that people have the right to consume what they want. I'm not down on anybody for using tobacco. But I don't want to inhale their smoke. And I don't want to listen to other people's music. If I complain I'm told: "Most people like it." Well, most people like coffee, and I happen to be addicted to it, but I don't force it down anyone's throat.

If you walked down the street slapping the head of every person you met, you'd quickly be arrested and put somewhere where you couldn't do harm. Yet you can do the same thing in a boom car and get away with it. What's the difference?

Society has long recognized the right of the individual to be free from assault. More recently, we've acknowledged the right to clean air. Isn't it time we also recognized the right to quiet?

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