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Unwanted Music is Noise Pollution to Some

EPA issues warning about sounds in public places

When does music in public spaces become noise pollution?
When does music in public spaces become noise pollution?

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Ted Landphair

You probably like at least some sort of music. Tunes that you pick out.

Problem is, in lots of places across the United States, you’re forced to hear somebody else’s choice in music.

Say you’ve just landed at an airport. In the terminal, the van taking you to your rental car, and the car-rental office, so-called “background” music is blasting.

There’s peace and quiet inside your automobile. But don’t lower the window, because the person next to you did, too, and the bass woofers in that vehicle’s stereo system are blasting so loudly that the whole car is shaking. 

Mercifully, you reach your hotel lobby, only to hear syrupy-sweet “elevator music,” as it’s called - even before you get on the elevator.

In the gift shop: more tunes!  Up the elevator: actual elevator music.

Muzak was a pioneer in both “background music” and the psychological possibilities that it presents.
Muzak was a pioneer in both “background music” and the psychological possibilities that it presents.

You go out to dinner and end up in a place where the management thinks more music will stimulate conversation or your appetite. Then a strolling mariachi band or a guy playing the violin comes around.

Psychologists call this barrage “audio architecture,” or “musical wallpaper,” designed to put you in the mood to buy more and eat a lot.  

Even the U.S. government considers this “noise pollution,” especially when the music is cranked up. Not only has the National Institutes of Health warned about hearing loss from exposure to loud noises - including music blasting into one’s ear - but the Environmental Protection Agency has even issued warnings about the effects of  “unwanted or disturbing sound.”  

The latest warning reads:  “Sound becomes unwanted when it either interferes with normal activities such as sleeping, conversation, or disrupts or diminishes one’s quality of life.  The fact that you can’t see, taste or smell it may help explain why it has not received as much attention as other types of pollution, such as air pollution or water pollution.  The air around us is constantly filled with sounds, yet most of us would probably not say we are surrounded by noise. This ‘annoyance’ can have major consequences, primarily to one’s overall health.”  

Music can be soothing or savage. When it comes to their space, many people prefer a third option: peace and quiet.

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