The ethics of music in public spaces

On multiple occasions, I have toyed with the idea that it is unethical to play music in public places. It’s an idea that is difficult to take seriously, because it’s just so contrary to the culture we currently live in. Current norms surrounding public music seem to work just fine, so why try to fix what ain’t broken? And yet, it’s difficult for me to say exactly why the status quo is okay.

What follows is my argument as to why playing music in public spaces might be wrong. The goal is not to persuade you of the argument’s conclusion, especially when it’s a conclusion I don’t believe myself, but to persuade you that it’s a nontrivial question.

The fact of the matter is that different kinds of people like different kinds of music. This is something that everyone understands on an intellectual level, and yet it’s just so easy to ignore it in our everyday life. That’s because there is large body of music, which I dub “popular music” or just “pop”, that almost everybody finds acceptable.

But even when it comes to popular music, not everyone enjoys it. For example, there is a famous quote by Merzbow:

If by noise you mean uncomfortable sound, then pop music is noise to me.

The joke is that if you’ve ever listened to Merzbow, you know that his music is extremely noisy, and many people would describe it as uncomfortable.

It’s not just Merzbow. Many people have declared their distaste for pop. While there are certainly performative aspects to such a public declaration, I don’t think we can write it off as pure snobbishness. We ought to take seriously the idea that some people just don’t like pop, in the same way that some people just don’t like Merzbow.

And even among people who otherwise have “popular” tastes in music, there are many situations when they too might be annoyed with public music. For example, even if you generally like pop, you might still dislike this one pop song. Or perhaps you’re trying to listen to music on your own mp3 player, and the public music is interfering with that. There’s also the annual phenomenon of complaining about Christmas music, sometimes jokingly suggesting it should be banned. For some reason come January, people always forget about the ban proposal, even though it could arguably apply to all kinds of music year round.

So if some people are enjoying the music, and other people are not, why is the music acceptable? For the most part, we seem to operate according to a utilitarian principle, preferring music that we think most people would like or at least find acceptable. In private settings, such as in a car, the passengers often negotiate what music to listen to based on how strongly their desires seem to be. In retail, stores want music that puts people in the right “mood” to buy things, or at least music that doesn’t scare customers away.

Many readers might be willing to accept the utilitarian answer without question. And then perhaps the question of music in public spaces looks easy to resolve. However, I note that this touches upon one of the big philosophical critiques of utilitarianism. Is it truly ethical to force a small number of people to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of everyone else? There is an uncomfortable similarity to The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, a story about a utopia that relies on the misery of a small child.

In general, we seem to have additional ethical principles regarding sacrifice that go beyond the simplistic version of utilitarianism: we believe in fairness, autonomy, and consent.  But for some reason we fail to apply these principles to music, instead adhering to simplistic utilitarianism because it’s convenient.

An aside: You could defend public music on the grounds that it’s not really “public”, and is often played by private business owners.  You could say that by patronizing their business you are implicitly consenting to the music. This argument isn’t entirely satisfactory to me though, because we frown upon businesses discriminating against minority groups. In this case, the minority group is people who don’t like pop.

If we’re trying to apply utilitarianism to public music, then there are a few ways that we’re doing it wrong. In order to satisfy the preferences of the most people, it’s important that we know what those preferences are. It’s important that people can freely express their preference. And yet, when people express their dislike of pop, we often dismiss it as performative snobbery.  There is dislike of people who dislike pop. If it’s impossible to find music that will satisfy everyone, is it really the fault of people who dislike pop, or are they just the bearers of bad news?

And on the other side, we can complain about the discourse of people who express a dislike of pop. If the music that most people like is not music that you like, is that really the fault of people who like pop, or are they just the bearers of bad news? In general, it feels like the discourse around pop is less about negotiating the kind of music that will satisfy the most people, and more about playing a power game where people fight to have their opinions represented.

There’s an experience I would recommend you have, if only it were something that you could deliberately seek out. It is this: find some music that you like, that hardly anybody else could like. Enjoy some music that would be utterly implausible to ever play in a public space. This may help you find peace with the fact that no music can ever satisfy everyone.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    It’s an interesting ethical question — one, I think, that has a number of implications.One of those implications is that philosophy doesn’t always apply to real life. Like your reference to The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas, for example. I think the question that story raises about whether it is moral to have a utopia for a large group of people that relies on misery for one person is similar only on its surface, but is actually entirely different from the question of whether it is ethical to hold a short-time event that provides pleasure to one group of people, but annoyance to a different group of people. At some point, the difference in scale becomes a difference in kind.

    I mean, doesn’t your argument pretty much carry over to any and all civic events? If there is a marathon or a parade, it shuts down streets and creates traffic that is an inconvenience to those who choose not to participate. Traffic to sports events is likewise an annoyance to those who don’t care to watch that particular sport. Some people dislike not only Christmas music, but decorations or lights as well. Any political protest will bring ire from the opposite camp. Dogs hate fireworks.

    It seems to me that one aspect of our being social animals is that, as long we live in groups, we will carry out public events that will be seen as a positive for some subset of us, and a negative for another subset. If we choose to live in a city, we gain advantages and pay a penalty. Part of the penalty is that we must put up with inconvenience and annoyance from events we choose not to participate in, and part of the advantage is that, occasionally, there will be other events that we will enjoy. We put up with the one in order to have the opportunity to participate in the other; that is part of the social contract that goes along with the choice to live in a city.

    And for those for whom the advantage is outweighed by the penalty, perhaps a city might not be the best choice. I hear that cabins in the woods are pretty quiet.

    One other point: even if I don’t enjoy, say, classical music, I can still get enjoyment from watching others who are getting into it. I can enjoy watching a gay pride parade even though I am not gay. Doesn’t that enter into the question too?

  2. says

    @brucegee1962 #1,
    Yeah, those are all good points.

    There’s something to be said for scale-dependent ethics. It seems intuitive that minor annoyances are acceptable, but when multiplied into misery it is not. The intuition may find justification, if we understand that there’s an inherent cost to corrective action, and the cost is not worth paying to avoid minor annoyances. Or we might say that minor injustices tend to balance out in aggregate–that is, unless we identify a particular group that seems to systematically be the victim of more injustices than everyone else.

  3. says

    @brucegee1962 As someone who seriously dislikes music in public spaces I would like to point out that there is a fundamental difference between that and a parade or a sport event. Indeed a difference in scale that is so big it becomes a difference in kind. And that is, sport events or parades are one-off temporary events and (at least where I live) they are heavily regulated to minimize the discomfort thay cause. I get annoyed when there is a fair and some streers are closed, but it is gone in a few days. But I get only two options regarding public music – snuff it or die of hunger, because it is in every single shop, all year round, often loud and obnoxious.

    Also I know a few people who work in shopping malls who find the music annoying too. Even a song you love starts to grate on your nerves wheny you hear it for the tenth time in a day for example. And the staff are even more powerless to do anything about it than I am – I can at least do my shopping quickly, or plug my ears with earbuds. They can’t do either and have to endure it eight hours a day, powerless to turn it off or switch it for even a minute.

    My mother worked as saleswoman her whole life. When all shops started to play music, she got home even more exhausted than before. Because it is mentally tiring having to listen to music whether you want to or not the whole day.

    To me, music in public spaces does violate the principle of “your freedom ends where mine begins”. At the very least there should be regulations about how loudly and for how long it can be played non-stop without interruptions (and by interruption I mean specified silent pause).

  4. suttkus says

    My first thought on reading this was on how I’m a minority in another sensory aspect of public spaces: Temperature. Specifically, I’m not comfortable at the temperature most businesses keep. But, if my temperature preference were honored, almost everyone else would be uncomfortable. (I prefer the temperature to be around 65ºF.) I immediately realized there was a difference, of course. Every public space must be SOME temperature. You can’t offer a temperature-free business so as not to discriminate against people who don’t like the normal temperature. So, clearly it behooves a business to find the temperature that’s least offensive to the majority of it’s customer base, workers, and somehow economics of running the air conditioner probably factors in here.

    But, isn’t music the same way? If you don’t think of it as providing music, but providing ambiance. A place that isn’t providing background music is certainly presenting a type of sonic ambiance. Are there people who find that offensive? And then I realized, me. I have issues with sounds that are hard to describe (I think it’s related to Audio Processing Disorder, but since diagnoses cost money, I’ll probably never find out), but a certain level of background music really helps me focus, especially if it’s familiar and not attention demanding. Which is the definition of muzak. In public spaces without some sort of background music, I tend to start over-focusing on (if it’s quiet enough) random creaks and clock ticks, or (if it’s louder) nearby conversations that are none-of-my-business but since it’s noise, I have to listen.

    There are a number of local businesses that play hard rock or rap which I try very hard not to frequent because I find those distasteful and very attention demanding. Are they really being biased against me? You could argue I’m the biased one, given how much rap is associated with a particular race. (A race that I have very few artists I actually do like, so what does that say about me?)

    I’ve often felt that people who bring loud music with them into public spaces (car radios on the road loud enough to hear from other cars, or left playing at gas stations) are extremely rude. Unethical? Certainly on some level.

    This really is an interesting train of thoughts. Needs more consideration.

  5. anothersara says

    With regards to minorities, from a utilitarian standpoint, it also depends on how bad it is for the minorities who are negatively affected. If, say, 50% of grocery stores in a city absolutely refuse to have customers from a particular ethnic group, that is a severe negative effect for that ethnic group, which is why that is banned. If all of the grocery stories in a city play the same pop songs, how much of a negative effect does it have on the minority who dislikes those pop songs? Is the effect so negative that they cannot even shop? If it is bad for their health (physical and/or mental), how severe is the effect?

    @brucegee1962 #1: Having stayed overnight in some cabins in the woods, I can tell you that they are NOT quiet. Maybe there aren’t many humans around making noise, but there are often animals making noise (ranging from insects to deer to coyotes to monkeys, depending on the ecosystem, and yes I’ve heard all of these at night), and wind blowing through trees can also be noisy, or cause things in the cabin to creak. And if the woods somehow do manage to be quiet, that can also be very creepy because it can make any noise which does occur really stand out and spook you.

  6. says

    Is it truly ethical to force a small number of people to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of everyone else?

    All (good) ethical questions are questions not of if but of when to force one person or group to sacrifice their well-being for the well-being of another or others. Without conflict, ethics is at best self-help.

    Omelas is cracking good SF, but I think it fails as an argument against utilitarianism.

  7. Jazzlet says

    There are also people like me for whom music in shops is not so much a matter of like or dislike, but that the kind of music played in malls and most supermarkets seems to have a mesmerising effect on me that makes shopping almost imposssible, unless it is for a precise list of products detailed down to brand, number, and size, because it makes decision-making impossible. I can not shop in places like that and seek out places that do not play that kind of music, eg my local co-op plays the original versions of song, I may or may not like them, but they don’t have the same hypnotic effect that the bland covers have on me. Places that don’t play any music are far more likely to get custom from me as I’ll be able to make a decision to buy.

  8. bluefoot says

    There has also been a proliferation of music outside of businesses. That is, the business is piping music outside, often at high volume, rather than just playing “ambient” music in their establishment. It’s becoming more prevalent, and IMO, obtrusive. I can choose whether or not to patronize someplace with music, but I can’t choose not to walk down the street. If I’m sitting outside, why should I be subjected to one (or several!) businesses’ music? I *hate* the excess noise. I don’t understand its purpose either. I’ve noticed a lot of hotels are doing this, as well as bars, restaurants and shops.

  9. brucegee1962 says

    Well, the alternative to having events that will annoy and inconvenience a subset of the population is to have no civic events whatsoever. Everyone should just go to work every day with their heads down, with no music, decorations, recognition of holidays, or any way of breaking the monotony. Maybe there are those who would prefer those conditions — but as I said, perhaps those people shouldn’t be living in cities. This isn’t Omelas — nobody is being kept in a city against their will.

    Since turning away from religion, I’ve been thinking a lot about non-theologically-based ethics. One of the things I’ve concluded is that the foundation of ethics needs to be that they encourage behavior that helps us get along well within groups. Historically, competition between cultures has tended to favor those cultures that were best at encouraging cooperation between individuals. I think that when most people use the term Good, what they really mean is pro-social behavior.

    So yeah, I’d say that civic events, even if they don’t involve everyone, are positive social events because they help to create greater social cohesiveness. A bunch of people given the opportunity to rock out with their neighbors are less likely to attack said neighbors at a later date.

    I’ll agree with your caveat that, if a group is systematically left out, that is a problem. That group either needs to organize their own events, or if they’re too small to do so, go somewhere else and form their own community. Cities must be organized so that the process of organizing events is done equitably.

  10. says

    @Charly #3,
    *nods* The way that mall workers need to listen to a lot of music appears to be a form of emotional labor (in the original sense that Hochschild intended it).

    The reference to mall workers (and retail workers more generally) is interesting to me, because it makes the argument seems more compelling. As I said in comment #2, minor injustices tend to balance out in aggregate, but that’s no longer the case when there’s a particular group that’s at a systematic disadvantage. In the OP, I referred to “people who don’t like pop”, but that’s sort of a nebulous group compared to retail workers.

  11. says

    @suttkus #4,
    Yes, I like the point that there isn’t really such a thing as a “neutral” sonic ambience. In a way, the most popular pop song is 4:33 played in a loop.

    @brucegee1962 #9,
    I don’t find it satisfactory to say “you don’t need to live in the city”. Moving away from a city can be a serious burden.

    I think what makes civic events different from public music, is that they’re decided by a political process. If you wanted to take corrective action, there is already a process in place to make that decision. Public music, on the other hand, is just there by default, and nobody seems to question it.

  12. wereatheist says

    Moving away from a city can be a serious burden.

    Trying to stay within a city district is often difficult, too. How long until I will be gentrificated out of places I am familiar with?
    Freedom to the rich means disturbing my peace of mind.

  13. wereatheist says

    And I really hated that person who played (amplified, to boot) my favorite shitty songs all over summer way after 10pm (which is illegal, but the cops are more interested on hunting black drug dealers).

  14. Marja Erwin says


    I have hyperacusis and sensory processing disorder. Music can be painful for me– but rapid beeping noises, intercom alarms, backup beaters, sirens, car horns, etc. can be incapacitating.

    I have to wear ear plugs and protectors on errands, but can’t get a good fit, so many of these things are still incapacitating.

    As far as reducing sound goes– I’d prefer to revise safety standards, so they phase out incapacitating pain weapons, (and incapacitating strobe weapons), instead of continuing to mandate these (and getting people hit by cars for “safety”).

    As far as addressing discrimination goes– obviously not endangering us would help, but also removing registration requirements for relay services, and/or providing other accessible alternatives to phones for government services. As it is, many services require users to use phones, and any help lines also require users to use phones. For example, is not accessible due to its reliance on phones.

  15. D SIMON says

    Who decided that music in “public” spaces was a good idea, period? I’m old enough to remember a startup enterprise called MUZAK (sp?). As I recall they sold the service – music in elevators which expanded to other public spaces. This was long before internet, wifi and digital wireless enabled easy distribution of audio. Sure there was radio but it included advertising. So there you have it – MUSIC EVERYWHERE. My preference is silence. If you want music get a pair of BT earbuds. But I’m just an old currmudgine.

  16. Keith Saunders says

    I am not sure that th e utilitarian arguments expressed here are appropriate here. I look at this as a question of the duty we all have to avoid polluting our shared environment. I view music in shared spaces, regardless of genre, as a form of pollution. Just as we have a duty not to pollute the air with foul smells, the water and the land with noxious chemicals, so we have a duty to keep noise of all kinds to a minimum in public, shared spaces.

  17. Dennis Simon says

    I agree completely. I mean really: who decided that we need music EVERYWHERE?

    Supermarket: I actually heard this announcement on Supermarket Radio in market last week: 0Thank you for listening. Did you know that XX million people listen to Supermarket Radion?” Seriously? Of course there are much bigger problems in our socisty but I really could do without music everwhere. ANd especially genres with I have no connection at all.

  18. Patrick Murch says

    All I can offer at this time is that, for those of you who commented that you don’t like music or that listening to music all day is “mentally tiring” I honestly just feel pity on you. When I’m having a bad day or just really need to concentrate on my work or what I’m doing at home, I put in my earbuds and crank my music up all the way. I go for hours on end like that. Because for me, pretty much any noise I hear in any setting distracts me. People talking or TVs or cars. But when I have music, especially music I love blasting in my ears, it does something to calm and focus me that no medication or technique can do. It puts me in my own zone, while still being physically and mentally present. I often feel like it gives me an edge on life when I’m doing things this way. People can’t talk to me, and I can focus my brain or relax my brain. Whichever I need to do. I will add that I have been a musician my whole life. I’m 38 years old and music has always been a realese for me, entertainment, therapy, among other things. Music is my life. I don’t know who or where I would be without it. I feel for any of you who have legitimate health issues resulting from music, since for me, it is quite the opposite. Music helps my mental health more than anything else. And for those of you who just plain find most or all music disinteresting, I just feel plain sorry for. To me, and many others, music is one of the world’s best gifts. A gift that keeps on giving. A way of expression unlike any other. And it is also an amazing for of Art. As a musician and an artist, I could never imagine a life or a world without music and art. To me, that sounds like the clear definition of what He’ll would be. For, if I could not play and listen to music, I feel I would not have a reason to want to live. I love all genres, I find Artists I love in them all. If you’d like any suggestions, please feel free to contact me. Music is my religion, for lack of a better word.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *