“If music be the food of love, play on…” The famous opening line of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” despite its wary “if,” became a cliche for a reason. It draws on the common human experience of music as something associated with good things: in this case, as Duke Orsino surmises, with romance, but also with food, wine, praise, celebration, reverie, ease. People have always turned aside happily from life’s dull grind to perform or hear music.

Or they did, before Muzak. Nearly 80 years ago, the man who figured out how to produce “background music” by playing phonograph records through telephone lines, a two-star general named George Squier, took the duke at his word and gave the world a surfeit of music such as it had never known. The well-meaning Squier clearly saw himself as a benefactor to humanity. Piped music had soothed and cheered his own workers, he said. Better yet, it had boosted attendance and production. Workplaces everywhere felt it was worth a try. Department stores latched onto it, convinced that it lulled shoppers, subliminally encouraging them to linger and browse. And as skyscrapers continued to shoot up across the United States, the aural pacifier found its natural home: the elevator, full of jittery riders. Muzak was on its way.

By the 1980s, after numerous changes of hands and technology, the company Squier established was delivering “foreground music” via satellite. Today, it boasts 250,000 subscribers and 80 million listeners worldwide and has gone high-concept. Forget foreground: Muzak now delivers “audio architecture” — not music, but “extraordinary experiences.”

Its success can be vouched for. It is indeed an extraordinary experience of a kind to be driven out of a store by pounding rock music or to shout oneself hoarse attempting to chat in a restaurant or bar. It is extraordinary bordering on the surreal to be pursued by the strains of pop music being pumped out at major shopping intersections, a familiar feature of Tokyo life. But it is hardly soothing. Such an experience is to yesterday’s modest Lawrence-Welk-in-the-elevator as Napalm Death is to the Amadeus String Quartet. As Shakespeare could have predicted, the appetite for the new and improved, in-your-face Muzak has sickened and may even die. To its many detractors, Muzak has become the food of hate; now the middle of the duke’s speech, not the first line, provides the rallying cry: “Enough! No more:/ ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.”

The latest crusader against the auditory onslaught is a British Conservative MP who this month introduced a bill to actually ban Muzak from public places in Britain. “All music is devalued,” declared Mr. Robert Key, “if it is treated as acoustic wallpaper.” His bill calls for the prohibition of piped music in the public areas of hospitals, medical clinics, swimming pools, bus and railway stations, airports and public highways. Like other forms of noise pollution, Mr. Key argues, “canned music” causes physical symptoms from raised blood pressure and cholesterol levels to increased muscle tension.

This is a far cry from the happy, humming workers conjured up by Gen. Squier, and in truth the scientific grounds for either case — that music does or does not cause measurable physical reactions (and if so, what kind) — are unclear. British psychiatrist Anthony Storr avers that fast, loud music does accelerate breathing and raise blood pressure. But it would appear to be stretching the facts to claim, as Mr. Key does, that any kind of Muzak — loud, soft, fast, slow — produces these effects simply because it is annoying. The campaign against secondhand, or passive, smoking has had a hard enough time making legislative headway, with much stronger evidence of harm. Mr. Key’s campaign, though appealing, is even less likely to succeed.

Still, it raises an important issue. Mr. Key’s rage strikes a chord, not just with music purists, who have always objected to Muzak, but with those who simply want to escape the expanding blanket of noise. Where can you go to hear pure silence? Not even to the mountains any more; in Japan, at least, the hills are alive with the sound of J-pop. Something must change. Prohibition may not be the answer (although volume limits might be), but it would surely be salutary if the Muzak makers were jolted into wondering whether they might not have been wrong all along. Maybe the general’s legacy has been a curse, not a blessing; maybe all those workers, shoppers and diners just want the music to stop. Or at least BE TURNED DOWN.

It might be too late anyway. Having conditioned entire generations to be noise-dependent, Muzak will probably be left in the dust by the youthful, head-phoned hordes, toting their own “extraordinary experiences” with them wherever they go. Now that would be justice.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.