Date created: 15/11/08 3:02 PM
Last modified:15/11/08 3:02 PM
Maintained by: John Quiggin
John Quiggin

Musical background beef

John Quiggin Australian Financial Review

17 January 2008

A New Year brings a sense of new possibilities. Perhaps the change of government really will, as has variously been threatened and promised, change the country. But there are some changes that go beyond the capability of governments and prime ministers to bring about, and for these, especially New Year is an appropriate time to wish.

Not all utopian hopes are large ones, and my wish for 2008 is small, but no less utopian for that. I would like a world less thoroughly saturated in other people’s music.

I am certainly not the first to wish for this. Sixty years ago or more, George Orwell was already complaining about the ubiquity of music. Pejorative terms like ‘Muzak’ and ‘lift music are commonplace. And on 21 November, a hardy few celebrated No Music Day, the brainchild of musician and artist Bill Drummond. But despite these objections the spread of background music continues.

In many contexts, music is so firmly established that we don’t even think about it. Most of us do not take very seriously the kind of film in which the characters spontaneously burst into song. But even in the most serious and supposedly realistic films, the dramatic action is accompanied by background music.

In portraying a world that is itself full of background music moviemakers sometimes run into difficulties. As the scene of the action shifts to an interior, the audience may be left in two minds as to whether the music they can hear is supposed to be audible to the characters, or only to those looking on.

Background music for film is so longstanding and ubiquitous that it has become, quite literally, part of the background assumed by viewers. We mostly don’t notice it, and we would quickly notice its absence.

In the last few years, though, background music has escaped from the constraints that once confined it. At the same time, it has become steadily louder and more intrusive. Documentary and current affairs shows were once largely music-free. As production values came to predominate over content, however, there was increased emphasis on establishing shots and linking sequence, designed to protect viewers from the dreaded spectacle of ‘talking heads’ as long as possible.

In the last few years, this process has been taken to its logical conclusion, with music being played over the top of commentators and speakers in what are supposed to be serious programs about science, politics and culture.

The problem is most evident with the ABC. As a national, publicly-funded broadcaster, the ABC is under an obligation to serve all viewers. Yet playing music and speech simultaneously must cause difficulties for older viewers, those with hearing difficulties and those for whom English is not a first language.

It’s impossible to please everybody. Apparently, making the program audible to viewers interested in the program content must be sacrificed in order to appease those who need mood music if they are to be induced to watch at all.

The response offered by the ABC to complaints is that viewers might get better discrimination with a more expensive setup including separate speakers. Apparently, low-income households can be added to the list of those whose interest in science or politics takes second place to musical accompaniment.

However, the suggestion of a technological fix raises hopes that escaping other peoples’ music might not be such a utopian idea. Already, every second person in public is insulated from the ambient noise with an iPod. The cost of such devices is plummeting. The additional capacity to receive and transmit wifi and radio signals is becoming commonplace. So, instead of imposing a single musical offering on their customers, many of whom are already jamming it, department stores could podcast a range of channels, and let the customers choose. Some people might even want to listen to continuous announcements of Red Light Specials.

The solution for broadcasters is even simpler. Instead of broadcasting a package and leaving the audience to separate the signal from the noise, they could simulcast their programs and the musical accompaniment on different channels, maybe even offering a choice of soundtracks. With digital technology, this ought to be easy.

If all this comes to pass, there is one channel I’d particularly like. It would be devoted to continuous play of John Cage’s 4' 33''. This classic work for piano consists entirely of silence.*

* In Cage’s original conception, the content of the work was to be the background noise heard by the audience. But the simpler interpretation of complete silence is the one I’d want to listen to.

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

Read more articles from John Quiggin's home page

Go to John Quiggin's Weblog