Piped Music in Public Places: Pollution Unchecked

By Guido Mina di Sospiro (September 2019)

36, Carl Jung (The Red Book)



Most people are afraid of silence. —Carl Jung, Letters, Vol. II


In the 1930s, my father reliably resorted to a stratagem of his invention: whenever he entered an elegant restaurant, be it in Paris, Turin, Budapest, or even Cairo, and noticed that live music was being played, he walked up to the bandleader, presented him with a handsome tip, and said, with a smile: “Have a break, and don’t come back until I’ve left.” All bandleaders gratefully complied.



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I can’t say that the new form of public pollution is subtle, as it is just as all-pervading. Unfortunately, there is no medical literature yet indicating that being exposed to a chronic and unbidden amount of piped “music” is harmful. “Music” in quotes because even the vintage word “muzak” would be, in a sense, a compliment: no matter how sugary and obnoxious, at least it was still played by human beings, while much of today’s piped music is synthetized.


If cigarette smoke made going to a restaurant somewhat futile, as the dominant taste could be that of combustion (depending on how many active smokers were in it at the time), “music” pollution makes restaurants, at least to me, equally insufferable. My friend and co-author of two novels Joscelyn Godwin is also a world-class musicologist and composer, as well as a multi-instrumentalist. I remember two lunches with him, in New York City and in London, during which we sat outdoors, much to the surprise of the respective managements, as it was late winter. Better to be cold than to be subjected to incessant piped “music”.


Calling piped “music” “cacophony” would be a compliment: a watchdog barking furiously is cacophonous, but at least it serves a useful purpose.  


“Music”, by being piped in so many public places, sometimes with overlapping sources, has become inflated, cheapened, shall I say, worthless? I, a classically trained musician and former music critic, have grown averse to it. Not to music per se, but to its being forced through our eardrums unrelentingly—and what irritating, imbecilic, computerized, churlish music at that.


Who are the listeners, or rather the hearers who don’t mind the incessant piping? How unengaged are their minds to allow that pollution to go on unchecked? Could it be that unengaged minds find constantly reverberating, partially or totally computerized piped “music” comforting? Those who subject themselves to a lifetime of unchosen piped “music”, do they know that Music, with a capital “M”, exists? It is a somber reality that what it takes for many people to discover books is to be incarcerated. Might the same apply to Music?


listen. Such audiophiles are probably not afraid of silence, and know when and how to break it. But most people seem so terrified of silence, and to be alone with their unengaged minds, that they will gladly take endless hours of piped computerized and/or synthetized “music”.


Ironically, it has never been easier to familiarize oneself with Music, thanks to YouTube. Almost everything is available—for free!—and the repertoire gets richer every day with every new posting. A cornucopia of masterpieces is at everyone’s disposal.



A prolific German composer, violinist and conductor, as highly regarded during his lifetime as he has been obscure since, he had been a pupil of Beethoven’s. When the former’s autobiography was published in 1859, his criticisms came at the height of Beethoven’s worship. The Beethovenites fired back, and strong prejudices were since developed against Spohr’s music. Is it worth reconsidering? Not in the least—definitively not silence-breaking-worthy.


Beethoven’s last quartets are among the greatest compositions known to humankind. Almost two centuries after their creation, they are still as magnificent as, here and there, mystifying. Quartet op. 132 is notably gorgeous, and its third movement in particular, which Beethoven himself entitled Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart (Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Godhead, in the Lydian Mode), is one of the pinnacles of human creativity. I could only hope that the Quartetto di Cremona would do it justice.


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Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit is an autobiographical prayer of thanks after his illness in which Beethoven expresses joy and thanks for the gift of life. As a nod to ancient church music, he employs the use of the Lydian mode. At more than fifteen minutes, it is a demanding movement to pace and perform. The adagio sounds strange and somewhat otherworldly as the listener is enveloped by it.


Specifically, the three chorale sections, interspersed by two andante sections marked Neue Kraft fühlend (Feeling Renewed Strength), can be played, by very skilled as well as musicologically savvy musicians, without vibrato. The chorale then becomes essentially a succession of drawn-out, vibratoless, sonorous chords that have an astonishing effect on the listener. It is an intonational challenge to play chords rich with quartal intervals without vibrato. When this technically demanding approach works, it pares the sound down to pure essentials and seems to vibrate with a sonic core that one might hear in nature. That should not be a surprise, as all the acoustics involved are naturally amplified by magisterially selected, very well-seasoned (old-growth) wood from different tree species.


While Beethoven could by then only hear music in his mind, his sustained, vibratoless chords seem directed not to our ears, or to our mind, but to our gut. There is something about their succession that reminds me of sap traveling up a tree from its roots. As I was sitting there with my eyes closed, I felt as if water were moving upwards to replace water lost through transpiration, like photosynthesis pulling water up through the plant from the soil. Those long, solemn, sustained, vibratoless chords emanating from ancient wooden soundboards were swelling up from my gut, to my heart, through my soul.




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