My thoughts on background music

Live background music gets a bad rap. I once played at an after-concert foyer jazz session for a major performing arts organisation, and the manager of that organisation stood up beforehand and told everyone how offended he was by the idea of background music. Then we started playing, and the champagne started flowing, and everyone started chatting, including the manager, as I recall. It was background music, and it was completely fine.

You can understand why someone who was immersed in the world of concert music might be challenged by the idea of music being played by real musicians while other people talk over the top. Like most musicians, I spend at least some of my time playing in darkened halls to attentive audiences, and there’s no denying that it’s rewarding. All that hard detailed work that we’ve put into our craft seems to be worth it when we’re playing to people who are doing their best to pay close attention. Perhaps more importantly, concerts constitute a status recognition for performers. When people pay for a seat and then spend an hour or two in silence, listening to and watching you do what you do, you feel important. It’s great from a purely musical perspective, but maybe even greater from an ego perspective. It’s the chance to showcase your art, but also the chance to be validated as an artist.

So I play at concerts sometimes, and jazz clubs and festivals and other gigs where people come to listen. But that’s a minority of what I do. I play a lot of background music. Much of the time, my job is to provide mood and atmosphere for events where people want to talk and catch up and network and celebrate. The music is a part of the event, but listening to the music is not the primary objective for most of the people there.

That creates some challenges for the musicians. Musical challenges, and also ego challenges. You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve managed to deal with both, and deal with them pretty well.

The musical challenges are pretty clear. When the musician’s don’t own the soundscape, and have to share it with conversation, the music has to work differently. Some aspects of performance, which might be important in a hushed jazz club, take a back seat. Firstly, we have to compress the dynamic range (the difference between the loud bits and the soft bits). There’s no point in playing beneath the noise floor that’s set by the conversation. And there’s even less point in overpowering the talking – playing too loudly both annoys people and makes them talk louder. Secondly, we have to constrain the emotional content. The audience at a concert will listen to a soul-tearing rendition of Cry Me a River or Nessun Dorma which leaves them distraught and gasping for breath, and consider that money well spent. Not so most brides and grooms. Thirdly, sounds might need to change a bit. As a bass player, my background sound is probably a bit bigger and rounder than my concert sound, because I need to find space in the frequency spectrum that’s not already occupied by chatting. Similarly, in a very noisy environment I might prefer to use a trumpet or a clarinet or an alto saxophone or a female singer, in preference to a tenor saxophone or a male singer, because there’s room for those higher-pitched instruments to float above the level of the conversation without getting in anyone’s way.

The musical problems have technical solutions, and they’re easy enough to manage once you know how. You have to accept, of course, that playing alongside crowd noise is never going to allow you to create quite the sounds that you’d like to create, or to hear yourself as clearly as you’d prefer. That’s just part of the deal. No performance is perfect from a sonic perspective – background gigs are particularly imperfect. But the bigger issue is the personal one. Music is, at its core, an emotional experience. That doesn’t mean that when I play the bass in a jazz band I’m actually experiencing personal drama, but what I am trying to do is connect with other people in quite an intimate way. When you hear my sound, you feel it in your body, and when you respond to the rhythm, you’re reacting to a stimulus which is going right to the core of your humanity. I think on some level, most musicians experience this connection with the audience as a relationship of sorts. We look at people in the audience and see and hear and feel how they’re responding, and on some deep level we take it personally. When we can sense that the listeners are loving what we’re doing, there’s a very special feeling that goes along with that. If the listeners hate what we’re doing, that’s not so great. As performers, we’re offering something of ourselves, and we’re vulnerable. Maybe everyone who offers a service is vulnerable, because anyone who makes that offer can be rejected, but I think performing amps up the vulnerability. Partly, it’s because the thing we’re offering is a bit of ourselves (quite literally, when I’m getting to end of a hard night’s playing and my fingers are starting to deposit themselves on the strings). And partly because live music only exists in the moment. If you don’t like it, we don’t get another chance.

Reading all that, you’d imagine that playing background music is a special kind of hell. For some musicians, I think it is. But some of us enjoy doing it, and take pride in it.

It seems to me that background music is just a different mode of performance, which comes with its own set of motivations and ideals and philosophies. Perhaps the best comparison I can make is with film music. Film composers, and the musicians who play on the soundtracks, know that their music is not going to be the central focus of the audience’s attention (unless the audience is made up of film score buffs, in which case all bets are off). Maybe only a small portion of people walking out of the cinema at the end of the film will have any comment to make about the score, and an even smaller portion will be rushing out to buy the soundtrack. But can we take that to mean that film music is unimportant? Of course not. Good film reviewers understand this – When they try to describe whether or not a film works and why, they’ll talk about the music (along with a whole raft of other storytelling elements that most people probably don’t notice). I’m pretty sure that most film composers take their job seriously, and think very hard about exactly what the musical accompaniment needs to be to create the dramatic effect that the director is looking for. Nobody thinks of a film score as muzak, even though it’s in the background most of the time.

When I’m approaching a job playing background music, I’m thinking about the emotional content of the event, just like a film composer trying to understand a scene. True, weddings and corporate events seldom incorporate car chases or martial arts sequences or life montages (PowerPoint slideshows notwithstanding). Still, they have an emotional story to tell, and the people who attend the events have emotional responses to what’s going on. Good event planners worry about the food and the wine and the décor because they want the guests not only to be impressed, but also to feel something. Whether or not you, as a guest, notice on a conscious level how much work has been put into the flower arrangements or the lighting or the colour co-ordination, you still have a response to it. It still makes you feel a certain way when you walk into the room, and whether you realise it or not, it will colour your memory of the whole event. Film-makers and advertisers and novelists and artists and chefs and landscapers and musicians: we’re all working towards the same basic end. We’re all trying to make people feel something, and if we’re serious about that, we don’t care for a moment whether or not the people doing the feeling are aware of what’s making them feel that way, or whether we’re reaping the acclaim that we undoubtedly deserve for our part in the experience. People who come to concerts are willing subjects for the manipulation that we provide, and some of those people will have very powerful responses. But I don’t think you have to be a focused, listening member of an audience in order to be moved by music. The guests at a function probably won’t react with the same intensity (in fact, it’s probably best that they don’t), but the response is no less real, and no less abiding.

When you’ve been doing this a long time, you can see the signs. You can see the small, spontaneous movements that people do when the music is making them happy. You can feel the way the soundscape affects the mood of a room. There might only be a handful of people who we’re actively and obviously connecting with at any given time, but we can think of those people as symbolising the unconscious impact that we’re having on many others who might not be showing it outwardly. We’re complementing the other things that are going on – eating drinking, socialising, networking – and in cognitive terms we often take a back seat to those other things. But if the eaters, drinkers, socialisers and networkers are feeling good, and we’re part of the reason why, then our job is well done.