planks and plunks of nothingness
Not long ago it was my unhappy fate to stay in a hotel
where so-called music was piped into a kind of atrium on which my hotel
room opened. As a result I spent about 12 hours off and on, but mostly
on, listening to what a friend of mine used to call "elevator music."
This sound--I wouldn't dignify it with the word "music"--goes
on and on and on all day and all night, not only in elevators, but also
in hotel lobbies, in some restaurants and bars, and even in dentists'
It seldom comes with lyrics and almost never arrives with any recognizable
melody. Instead, there is endless noodling up and down the scale. One
looks, but never finds, some recognizable tune, because there isn't
any. There is seldom voice or voices as a part of the presentation,
and if there is, it is in the tradition of modern rock: "Oh, baby,
oh, yeah, baby, oh, baby, oh, oh..." and so on.
I've often wondered if anyone actually writes lyrics like that, or if
they just make them up as they go along without really having to think
about their meaning. It certainly sounds like it.
Moreover, the sound is generated by electronic instruments, mostly electric
guitars, strummed, plucked or in some way sounded. Some are bass guitars
that play a never ending bass line. As a result, there is often no drum
beat, although that would be almost welcome in some cases.
There might be a piano, but more than likely it is an electronic keyboard,
which can sound like half a dozen instruments.
There are, I am told, some so-called "bands" that are really
a single keyboard player recording a whole set of tracks and then blending
them together to sound like a combo. No wonder things sound confused.
About the only sense one gets by prolonged listening is that some instruments
are in a higher register and are supposed to be the instrument carrying
the melody, but it's no melody I know.
When I was younger this used to be called "Muzak" to distinguish
it, I suppose, from "music." Muzak did play in elevators and
in dentists' offices and lots of other public places. In its infancy,
Muzak was at least recognizable as jazz.
Jazz, as most folks know, is supposed to be improvised, that is, played
by individual members of a group on a single melody, with the lead passed
from one to another in both competition and in a search for harmony.
It doesn't always sound like this, but, on the whole, good jazz fulfills
this requirement admirably.
Unfortunately the jazz age has passed and along with it, the most gifted
What purports to be jazz these days is mostly noodling, wandering up
and down the scale with no real insight or improvement of the basic
melody. Usually the tune gets lost somewhere, and most so-called jazz
players of the present day tend never to find it again. Or so it seems,
at least to me.
But the kind of torture to which I was subjected in the hotel wasn't
even that. Basically, it was sound to fill a space. Why blessed silence
isn't better is not clear, but those who operate public places seem
to think some kind of sound is essential to their business.
At first, when I heard this stuff that night, I felt a wave of pity
for those desk clerks, bartenders, waitresses, maids and bell boys who
have to listen to it all day and all night. But then I thought, unlike
me, they probably eventually develop a kind of immunity to it. They
no longer hear it. It just passes through one ear and out the next and
never makes an impression.
If this is so, though, if we can eventually acquire an immunity to Muzak
(or whatever it is called now), why do hotels, bars and other public
places continue to use it? I once read that the general effect of such
mindless music is to make potential customers cozy, happier and easy
In the dentist's office, for instance, it's supposed to make one more
likely, if not to enjoy the drill, at least to tolerate it without abject
fear. Maybe, although it doesn't have that effect on me, especially
when I woke at 4 o'clock in the morning and heard it blatting away just
as it had at 10 o'clock at night. Surely the hotel owner could have
turned it off during sleeping hours. I didn't need it to fall asleep
by. Instead it kept me awake.
But I realize, sadly enough, that the testimony of one music lover is
not likely to cause the Muzak business to fold its microphones and go
away. So the only other solution for hotel sleep is earplugs. And I've
During the next stay, I'll be soothed by silence, not plinks, planks
and plunks of nothingness.
Carl Heintze is a frequent contributor to the Los Gatos Weekly-Times.
A collection of his essays may be found at http://www.doitright.com/Carl/essays