Not music to my ears

Not music to my ears

By James Alan Fox

Editor: Background music got you down? It seems to be unavoidable in today’s world – overpowering the dialog on TV and in movies, “soothing” us as we hold on the phone, providing “enjoyment” as we ride the elevator. In the following column James Fox discusses his irritation with loud restaurant music. The column originally appeared in the Boston Herald; it is reprinted with Mr. Fox’s kind permission.

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A funny thing happened on the way to the airport. Fearing the worst – a toxic ride inside a hot and stuffy taxi through the traffic-snarled detours of I-90 East, I had the best: a courteous, older African-American driver who asked me if the soft jazz on his radio up front was perhaps too loud.

If I had a nickel for every time I have had to plead with a cabbie to turn down the music blasting from the rear speakers, I could ride to Logan free for a month.

My issue is not so much about the decline of basic courtesy – particularly among people who are paid for some type of service or disservice. The larger concern surrounds the nuisance of second-hand tunes, the ear-piercing shrill of someone else’s musical entertainment within my personal space.

Years ago, there was much debate about noise pollution coming from oversized boom-boxes. But thanks to Apple and the iPod, those wanting to enjoy whatever genre we new old fogies don’t comprehend can just stick it in their ear.

The use of iBuds also means that damage or discomfort is their problem alone. If research by Brian Fligor at Boston’s Children’s Hospital is any indication, there may be an entire generation of Americans who will lose their hearing prematurely. I even have a fitting name for this auditory impairment – iPodence.

But the problem of insufferable, ambient noise – music you don’t want and don’t like – doesn’t end with the iPod. Loud and unnecessary music is everywhere. It’s the promotional theme heard on the 5:30 a.m. flight to Philadelphia that disrupts passengers’ ability to catch a quick nap. Does the airline really believe that business folks want to daybreak dance to an early meeting or be entertained by anything louder than screaming headlines of the Herald?

Most of all, it’s the confusion between dining accompanied by music and music enjoyed with a snack. I accept having to yell at a cocktail lounge just to order some wings with my wine. Clubs depend on frenetic sounds for atmosphere.

Mealtime is different, however. As a South Ender who eats out more often than not, it is a challenge to chat with my wife. I don’t wish to learn sign language just to decipher the waiter’s explanation of some menu item that combines the words reduction, confit and vert.

So fed up with begging cafe managers to turn down the amps, I asked a state legislator friend of mine about sponsoring a restaurant noise abatement bill. We ban cigarettes from restaurants because of the second-hand smoke that ruins other people’s meals and threatens their health. What about controlling the decibel-level of second-hand music that has parallel effects on comfort and well-being?

My wise friend pointed out the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. My guess is that he may also be concerned about looking too much like his anti-Fluffernutter colleague on Beacon Hill.

So I appeal to all the restaurateurs who might like my business – and I know I’m not alone in seeking a comfortable spot to dine. How about a new type of ear-ly bird special – quiet time during dinner hours? Soft background music is appreciated, of course, but please wait until after dessert to blast out the subwoofers.

Otherwise, in order to keep my sanity, I might just have to be a real sport. Maitre d’, a round of iPods for everyone!

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James Alan Fox is Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back (and please speak up over the music) at j.fox@neu.edu.