Impartial research shows that more people dislike piped music than like it, but the two main music licence collectors, Performing Right Society for Music (PRS) and Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL), produce their own statistics to try to persuade companies to take out music licences. These statistics differ wildly from those produced by impartial bodies.

Many journalists have written articles slamming piped music and there are countless forums on the internet where people complain about it. But businesses that play it seem oblivious to the criticisms. Even sections of the music industry are bewildered as to how the providers of piped music manage to convince businesses to purchase it. "The fact they are able to continually market and sell piped music against such backlash is a testament to their tremendous marketing ability" (Taliferro Music, 2013).

Have a look at some of the research which has been carried out by bodies other than PPL and PRS:

July 2020: Action on Hearing Loss launches new campaign Action for All in Retail asking people to sign their open letter requesting the UK’s leading retailers to make their stores accessible for people who are deaf or have hearing loss – during the Covid pandemic and beyond. One of the four simple steps AOHL lists for retail outlets to become more accessible spaces for people living with hearing loss and deafness is to reduce background noise, including piped music.

June 2020: New Government guidelines state that hairdressers, pubs and other close-contact businesses are to ensure that piped music is not played so loudly that customers need to shout and thus risk spreading the Covid-19 virus more widely.

March 2020: A new study shows eight out of 10 people have cut short their visit to a pub, restaurant, or café because of noise, with 75% of people saying they would eat out more often if venues were quieter, according to the charity Action on Hearing Loss.

November 2019: BBC report explaining why office noise affects some types of people more than others. Includes university research on background music in the workplace revealing that, whether people liked or disliked the music they were listening to, it still made them perform worse on a “serial recall task” – where they were asked to remember a list in order – than they did in total silence.

February 2019: Researchers from University of Central Lancashire, University of Gävle in Sweden and Lancaster University found that background music "significantly impaired" people's ability to complete tasks testing verbal creativity. These findings challenge popular view that music enhances creativity.

October 2018: World Health Organisation publishes noise pollution guidelines for the European Region. New guidelines include leisure noise (for example from nightclubs, pubs, fitness classes, live sporting events, concerts or live music venues and listening to loud music through headphones).

May 2018: Research carried out at the University of South Florida finds that ambient music in restaurants can influence what food people choose to eat. Louder environments increase stimulation and stress, making diners choose junk food, such as burgers or chips. Restaurant managers can strategically manipulate music volume to influence sales.

February 2018: New article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology looks at the connection between noise pollution and heart health. Further details here. "Most background music is between 80 and 90 decibels, well over the threshold at which damage to the cardiovascular system has been observed...". 

December 2017: South Western Railway conducted an online survey to see if passengers wished to retain quiet coaches on their trains. 89% voted to keep them and just 9% to let them go (2% were undecided). 2245 people voted and 1333 left comments.

November 2017: According to British clinical psychologist, Linda Blair, relentless Christmas music in stores can be bad for our mental health. This is especially true for retail workers who often have to listen to the same festive tunes on a loop throughout their shifts.

October 2017: The National Autistic Society organised the UK's first nationwide 'quiet hour' which took place the week starting October 2nd. This initiative follows research which shows that 64% of people with autism and their families avoid going into shops. For one hour lights were dimmed, background music was reduced, and staff were trained in understanding autism. 4,977 shops and services around the UK participated.

August 2017: The latest edition of the Good Food Guide warns that a growing number of establishments are putting off customers by deafening them with "Glastonbury-force" songs. The Good Food Guide says that the trend for noisy restaurants has led to an unprecedented number of complaints from its readers. 

February - July 2017: Several supermarket chains disclose that they are conducting their own research into the effect of background music on their customers. The Co-op is undertaking a small trial of music free shops in order to gain some wider customer feedback. Scotmid is experimenting with muzac-free periods. ASDA is planning to introduce 'quiet hours' in stores nationwide with a view to collecting feedback regarding a complete withdrawal of the piped music in their stores. Tesco is trialling 'quiet hours' in some of its Tesco Extra branches, and Sainsbury's is experimenting with 'autism friendly' stores, initially in three of its Liverpool outlets. Morrisons, too, is piloting quiet hours on Saturday mornings from 9.00 - 10.00 in three stores - Woking, Gainsborough and Lincoln. These are starting on March 27th and are lasting for 3 months.

October 2016: In a study published by the Journal of Neurophysiology, researchers from the University of Maryland found that adults aged 61-73 with normal hearing scored significantly worse on speech understanding in noisy environments than adults aged 18-30 with normal hearing. This is due to the aging brain having problems processing speech.

September 2016: The latest edition of the Good Pub Guide calls for a ban on piped music in pubs. "Piped music, canned music, muzak, lift music, airport music – call it what you will, it’s there and our readers loathe it in any shape or form. It enlists bitter complaints from our readers and has done so ever since we started the Guide 35 years ago. It’s such an issue that we have always asked every main entry pub since 1983 whether or not they have it, and then clearly state this in each review."

July 2016: Action on Hearing Loss launched its Speak Easy campaign against noisy restaurants. Out of its survey of 1461 people (both with and without hearing loss) 92% of respondents identified a reduction in background music as one of the top three changes they want restaurants, cafés and pubs to make.

June 2016: M&S announced that they were turning off the music in all their stores. This was their statement: "We're focused on putting the customer at the heart of everything we do, this decision is the result of extensive research and feedback from our customers and colleagues."

May 2016: A Manchester branch of ASDA held its first 'quiet hour' in response to research on the needs of autistic and disabled shoppers. Eight other shops in the same shopping mall followed suit. A few days later the intu shopping mall in Braehead Glasgow hosted a trial quiet hour for autistic shoppers, announcing that there will be autistic-friendly initiatives rolled out across all intu shopping centres, including Metrocentre and Lakeside.

December 2015: Hammerson, which runs some of the largest shopping malls in Britain, is considering phasing out the loud pop music it currently plays because an experiment in the Bullring Shopping Centre, filmed by the BBC, showed that it is actually bad for business and is driving away shoppers.

September 2015: The Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint (Ref: A15-309437/ER) about the inaccurate statistics and research published on MusicWorksforyou*, at the time the "research" website of PRS and PPL, the two main music licence fee collectors. PPL have acknowledged that "several of the claims are inaccurate as they do not make clear that they relate to a subset of the population that likes listening to music in the particular scenarios listed". The ASA also highlighted other areas for PPL to consider. "These include potentially ambiguous claims, such as '74% agree that music makes customers happier', which actually relates solely to 'small retailers'; claims that don't appear to have any basis in the surveys provided; and those which involve a very small sample size." As a result of ASA's ruling, PPL have now either removed or corrected 94 of their original claims. Only 19 remain untouched. For years businesses have believed the inaccurate claims from the music licence collectors. How many have spent thousands of pounds on licences on the basis of these inaccurate claims? *this site has since been withdrawn

August 2015: A study published by the Journal of Advanced Nursing showed that music in the operating theatre can be disruptive and distracting for nursing staff. The music is usually chosen by the surgeon and can be played quite loudly, making it difficult for nurses and other members of the team to concentrate and/or communicate with each other.

October 2014: Stanford University produced research showing that 85% of teenagers perform simple tasks less well when distracted by music. It isn't just customers who are affected by background music; the staff have to work with it as well.

July 2014: Which? responded to calls from some of its members to cover annoying background music in shops. They asked for suggestions as to which shops play the most annoying music. There were more than 1,600 comments, making the topic the third most commented on the Which? site. The overwhelming majority of posts were from correspondents who dislike being forced to listen to shop music. The three top offenders were M&S, the Co-op and B&Q.

November 2013: Barclays Bank reported that 61% of older people cite loud music in shops as their biggest "bugbear" on the high street.

June 2013: ShopFit Direct carried out a survey which showed that loud instore music is one of the ten main factors driving shoppers from the high street.

November 2011: Immedia produced research demonstrating that 50% of shoppers will walk out of a shop if they don't like the music being played. Immedia is part of the music industry and they were trying to show how important it is that businesses choose music to suit their "brand". However, they really shot themselves in the foot by showing just how many people will leave a shop or restaurant if they dislike the background music.

August 2010: Research from the University of Cardiff showed that listening to music can interfere with short-term memory performance regardless of whether we like the music or not. Workers are often not allowed to turn off the music in their workplace even if they cannot concentrate with it on.

February 2005: C2C trains introduced piped television. Passengers were so outraged that they barricaded themselves in the toilets in protest. The BBC did a poll and found that 67% of passengers opposed piped television on the trains. It was withdrawn and C2C has never repeated the experiment. On the contrary, in common with other railway companies and in response to demand from travellers, they have introduced quiet zones.

November 1998: Results of an NOP Opinion Poll were that 34% of the general public find piped music annoying and 36% never even notice it. Of the hard of hearing (1 in 6 of the adult population) 86% find it annoying.

February 1994: Gatwick Airport surveyed 68,077 people and found that 43% said they disliked piped music, 34% said they liked it and 23% had no opinion.

Two seminal academic research papers

The following two academic research papers are probably cited more than any others as proof that playing background music is good for business. However, it is useful to look at what the authors actually say.

Milliman (Ronald E). "Using background music to affect the behavior of supermarket shoppers", Journal of Marketing Vol 46 (Summer 1982), pages 86-91.

In this paper Milliman concluded that playing music can influence the behaviour of shoppers. He reported a 38.2% increase in sales volume when slow tempo music was played, rather than fast tempo music. And "There was no statistically significant difference in sales volume between [no music] and [slow tempo music]."

In view of these findings why do most shops now play fast tempo music, which Milliman demonstrated is the worst type for sales volume? Who is advising them to play this type of music? And why play music at all when there is no statistically significant difference in sales volume between slow tempo music and no music, and when so many people dislike it?

Yalch (Richard F) and Spangenberg (Eric), "Using store music for retail zoning: a field experiment", Advances in Consumer Research, Volume 20, 1993, Pages 632-636.

This paper is often mentioned by the music industry because it demonstrated that people made more purchases when music was playing.  However, this is what Yalch and Spangenberg actually said:

"When music was played, about 55% of the shoppers made a purchase compared to 47% when no music was played. However, this difference is not statistically significant. Further, it did not affect total expenditures because the average amount spent per person making a purchase (as opposed to the number of shoppers) was highest in the NO MUSIC condition ($51.70 compared to $43.29 when music was being played)."

At the beginning of this article Yalch and Spangenberg thank Ellen Goldblatt of MUZAK "for assisting in planning and executing this study".  So, even though the piped music company, MUZAK, was involved in setting up this research, Yalch and Spangenberg ended up showing that shoppers actually spent more when no music was played.

Last updated September 2020

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