Music in our bones

rhythmbluesWherever I may be, whatever I’m engaged in, if I hear music start up—I stop. I listen. And I involuntarily identify the tune. This automatic name-that-tune response must have imprinted on my brain during my early years of music training and brief career teaching music. If I go to any restaurant that features live musicians playing in the background and wish to enjoy an over-dinner conversation, I can forget it. Ever wonder why many stores have stopped running endless tapes of music overhead as you shop? Studies show that the most observable effect of piped-in music on shoppers is prompting hyper-active children to dance down the aisles and roll under the clothing racks knocking over displays as they go.

These studies confirm my bias against background music anywhere, including elevators. More than six decades ago, Musak convinced merchants, restaurant owners and others that background music relaxes customers, subtly coaxing them to purchase more products, while at the same time, distracting them from noticing poor service or overcooked tuna. Not so. The tempo of marching music does not prompt me to rush through a meal at a crowded restaurant and neither does the Beatles’ rendition of “A Hard Day’s Night” convince me that I’m enjoying waiting for service in some long tedious line.

From the beginning of recorded history music has been at the center of human activity from ceremonies and celebrations to reflection and recreation.

Our rapidly changing technology has long sent Musak’s piped-in music to the elephants’ graveyard and replaced our public option with private choices of listening pleasure. Anyone can now be in two places at once: perhaps at a virtual concert hall while working out at the gym; or in a front row seat at a comedy club while maneuvering through traffic; or taking a self-improvement course while sitting in Starbucks sipping cappuccino. Are we suffering from an ODD condition—Overload of Distractions Disorder?

Perhaps I am overly critical of how other people use, or abuse, music. From the beginning of recorded history music has been at the center of human activity from ceremonies and celebrations to reflection and recreation.

This year, the Alabama Humanities Foundation partnered with the Smithsonian Institute to sponsor Museum on Main Street, a traveling exhibit that honors America’s contribution to music.

This exhibit, “New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music,” opens at its sixth location tomorrow, at the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center, where it will remain open to the public at no charge through December 31.

This fascinating, interactive exhibit featuring the origins of indigenous American music will impress any visitor, even the critical musicians among us, including this writer. Across the genres of music presented, many of which were born in the South, I dare you to find the slightest hint of Musak or elevator music.

Written by: Bob W.