The following received by email today:
Music on radio 4 p*sses me off.
Here's a letter I wrote to "Feedback" after they broadcast comments by a number of people who think the way I do:
Those who complain that background or incidental music and ambient sound interfere with their ability to hear broadcasts have a valid and important beef, but it would be sad if that aspect were allowed to capture the discourse. It would allow those programme makers who have the wallpaper habit to argue that they can't be expected to modify their editorial freedom to accommodate less than ideal reception. "Let them buy i-pods," as I heard even you almost say.
The main case against music is that it is commonly used with a deplorable lack of taste. I like to draw an analogy with seasoning: if I used salt with as little discrimination as they use background music, my food would be inedible.
I first wrote to you about this 20 years ago. I have written infrequently since then because I'm not that sad, because I have an off-button which I use a lot, and because taking on the music phenomenon fully would seriously detract from any other work.
But I'm writing now to say that my experience is consistent:
There is rarely any discernible editorial need for the inclusion of music. When challenged to explain "why this clip at that point, why did you use any music at all - what did it add?" editors hide behind editorial freedom and decline to explain anything. Believe me, I've tried this and have given up. (Actually it's less about editorial freedom than it is about editorial arrogance.)
Music rarely adds atmosphere, as is claimed for its application to drama and documentaries. Rather it destroys it, for me and obviously for many other listeners. It seems that a radio play must give the producer little scope for artistic input - the writer and the actors have all the fun - so it must be a great temptation for the producer to make a contribution by ransacking the musical archives. The temptation should be tempered with the questions "Hasn't the playwright done a good job? Aren't the actors acting their socks off? What does the music add, really? If I want to add music to drama wouldn't I be better advised to write an opera?"
Adding music to the reading of poetry is particularly crass. I haven't heard any recent examples but Woman's Hour used to be notable for this habit. The poet has created his/her own rhythms and colours. What can a simultaneous music track do but conflict with those qualities?
Editors frequently show a lack of discrimination in that they use tracks according to habitual patterns (or industry norms) rather than by reference to the unique verbal content of the programme. A very common practice is to use a short clip as punctuation between scenes of a play, or to distinguish editorial comment from archive material (for example the T.E. Lawrence documentary mentioned today). This is totally redundant if one is actually listening to the content. Some of us do, you know.
There is a lack of discrimination and range in the choice of music where programme content concerns topics with particular themes. Content with historical and geographical specificity suffers particularly badly in this respect, with harpsichords, lutes and countertenors getting peppered around a programme on Elizabethan cookery, Chinese music for any Chinese content, big band music for anything from the 1920s. Programme makers would be better advised to leave it out rather than insult the audience with the predictable use of a small palette.
Within one programme or series it is very common for a limited selection of clips to be used over and over again without regard for their tedious cumulative impact on the listener; outstandingly bad recent examples are The French Lieutenant's Woman last year and a short series in December or January about working at home, though there are many others.
It is common for a track to be faded down almost to the limit of audibility and then left playing throughout several minutes of speech, then faded up again as a punctuation point. This means a discerning listener is never quite sure what is going on as the inherent variations in the volume of the music nag and tug at one's attention.
The use of wallpaper music is becoming more general, especially now that the BBC is using trails so much. Some time ago you interviewed someone from the department that makes the trails. His description of the process included the phrase "… then we reach for a suitable piece of music". So it is a habit - we have it from the horse's mouth. I'd say more than 95% of BBC trails have background music, but rarely is it appropriate to the content.
In conclusion, music is invading more and more of our lives. It is surely appropriate for the BBC to reserve one channel to be a mostly music-free zone - Radio 4 (primarily a speech channel) is an ideal candidate. Much of its output is worth listening to but the addition of muzak consistently leads me to wonder: if the programme maker has such a questionable approach to the seasoning, how good are the ingredients?
(name and address supplied)
Finally, Mr.Sod, a suggestion - I'd do it myself if I wasn't already failing to do half a million things I ought to do instead. Someone ought to do a "Grumpy about music" blog that listeners could pop into to record their comments on the latest bit of idiotic cut-and-paste wallpaper with which some 12 year old producer at the BBC has thought to "improve" a radio drama or documentary. It would give these people some direct feedback and encourage other "grumpy about music" listeners to do something constructive instead of just shouting at the radio and turning it off.
The GOS says: Here's another thing. There's not much wrong with the Grumpy Old Hearing even at his advanced age, but his doctor says that as we get older our ability to separate the wheat from the chaff declines. In other words, it gets harder to watch the television when someone is talking, or pay attention to someone talking when the television is on. Isn't this another good reason for not using much background music on the radio? I bet the majority of the radio audience are over 50. On the other hand, Name And Address Supplied is absolutely right - most BBC employees seem to be about 12.
In effect, the BBC is discriminating against old people. I bet they wouldn't do it if we were gay.
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