Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Practice--Choosing appropriate background music




The Practice
The Art of Choosing Background Sounds & Vibrations

I had several conversations with an owner of a natural grocery store and the problems he ran into with choices of background music for the store.  Customers have complained about different types of music.  And from his assessment, the store owner came up with a list of types of music that annoy the customers--not something to take lightly in this competitive economy.  Latin music disturbed customers, and ditto for Southeast Asian music (no ragas please), high-pitched anything, guitars or trumpets received complaints, and the usual nostalgic rock/pop that plays in stores bothers me.  Who wants to listen to lyrical stories while shopping for groceries or trying to hold a conversation with someone they encounter while shopping?


I joined a new and fascinating LinkedIn Group on Music and Emotion around the same time I had the conversations with the grocery store owner.  And for several years my gaze has fallen on purposeful music--what purpose does common music (the music we hear on a regular basis) have besides this idea of musical wallpaper or entertainment?  Then these ideas surfaced which I quickly wrote down in my journal.  But first, I advise anyone reading this article to keep a music journal and track emotional and physical responses to different types of music.  But don’t just stop there.  Also take note of the time of day and the activities you are doing when you encounter the music.

If you do this, two things will happen.  First, you will grow more conscious of how music affects your moods and even your body’s reactions to sound vibrations.  With all the current brain-music research, you will know that your reaction to music is not your imagination.  Second, you learn that music, every type of music, has an original purpose.  The question that comes to mind is why would you listen to salsa music while shopping for groceries or browsing a bookstore in the first place? And really, the conclusion I reached is that businesses need to stay away from music with a strong beat, lyrical content, and would be better off playing nature sounds or a pleasant drone in the background.  Some experts would probably even opt for brainwave CDs, but those could be seen as manipulative on a psychological and neurological level in the wrong circumstances.


As I was writing in my journal, I asked the question, “Why do we need music played in the background of businesses in the first place?”  Music as much as we love it, has the ability to distract us and I haven’t seen any research, but I wonder if feeling annoyed by background music could elevate cortisol levels, especially if the music stresses the person out.  If a type of music is used outside of its normal parameters, does it create a distraction? I think it does.  For instance, listening to Latin American music isn’t conducive for grocery shopping.  Yes, this music, which was created for dance or other types of communal experiences (such as bonding to family, lovers, friends) or used for festivities, boost energy levels, but its polyrhythms and driving vocals aren’t conducive for concentration.

When a person is shopping for groceries, they actually need to concentrate and make decisions.  Many grocery shoppers also read labels, compare prices, decide their meals for the week, run through lists of ingredients and have many decisions to make.  They even use basic math skills to make price comparisons by volume and the analytical brain is quite active during a grocery shopping experience.  So with the mind hard at work and the person needing to focus on making the decisions, hearing dance music would feel distracting!  New age music might slow the body’s rhythm down and relax the brain, but the person could grow sleepy and feel more like meditating than getting through their shopping list.  I find that folk pop and rock music with lyrical stories also distracts the mind and diverts the person’s attention from getting their tasks done while their minds start daydreaming or experiencing emotions better left for the music therapist to solve.



photo by Patricia Herlevi outdoor market musicians


We currently think of purposeful music in the realm of healing, especially with music therapy and some types of sound healing practices. But all music has its rightful place and when played at the wrong time and in the wrong situation, could annoy a person, especially a sensitive person who is more in touch with his or her surroundings.  But how conscious is the marketplace when it comes to sound vibration and the proper use of music? Many businesses rely on piped in services produced by music companies with a royalties license, but how much to these businesses know about purposeful music or psychological effects of music, other than, it sells products? And sells products under duress or pleasure?

Did the ancient Greeks, for instance, listen to theatrical music in the temples? I think not.  And did they listen to funeral rites songs or even military marching songs during a Dionysus rite? And while this might sound obvious to the modern mind, we fail to grasp the concept of purposeful music during our own time.  We might feel distracted by salsa music while we shop, but that doesn’t mean we don’t like to dance to salsa music under the right conditions in the proper venue (an outdoor music festival or concert hall).  Salsa music with its driving polyphonic beats and rousing vocals can leave a person feeling exhausted when it’s played in the wrong circumstances.


Fortunately, we live in a time when we have the greatest exposure to a variety of music, traditions and culture. 

Unfortunately, we often listen to music out of context and wonder why it doesn’t move us or just annoys us.  We also need to hear silence once in a while because any type of music is going to offer power medicine on some level.  Personally, I wouldn’t mind shopping at a grocery store that just has the sounds of wind chimes or songbirds singing faintly in the background.  A bubbling brook would feel too relaxing, and ditto for waves on a beach. But having said that, I think this is not an easy area of research mainly because we are all different with unique tastes, temperaments and lifestyles.  If we try to please everyone’s musical tastes, we end up with boring and trite drone, not to say that drone can’t be pleasant when it comes from crystal bowls and other sound healing tools.

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