/ Shopping

It’s oh so quiet in M&S, is this music to your ears?

Sound system

In a resounding victory for all of you who didn’t pipe down about your distaste for piped music, M&S is scrapping piped music in its stores. Question is – will other retailers follow suit?

Music in shops is a well known pet peeve for many Which? Convo commenters. In fact, over the past few years thousands of you have told us how piped music has ruined your shopping experience, and driven you out of shops.

Well, with thanks to Dorothy who shared this with us, it would seem that the powers that be at M&S have agreed with this sentiment and have scrapped piped music.

A spokesman from M&S told us:

‘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’

Hooray – I hear you say – and a victory for those Convo commenters and of course the Pipedown campaign.

Peace and quiet

High streets across the country are currently (unless you’re reading this in the dead of the night) piping out a cacophony of muzak into their stores.

According to an investigation recently carried out by the Daily Mail there are some high street shops out there that are piping out music at 83.8dB – the sort of sound levels you’d find in a crowded bar where you can just about hear the person next to you talking. It hardly makes for a pleasurable shopping experience.

The experience can be far from pleasurable for some. Like Hilary, for example, who told us:

I have recently had to make speedy exits from several retail outlets as I could not concentrate on what I was looking for due to the volume and type of music being forced upon me.

And I can more than sympathise with those of you who told us how piped music drove you straight out of some shops. Harking back to the days of my Saturday job, if it wasn’t torturous enough to be in an airless spotlit shop, the added ‘easy listening’ tunes piped out on loop made it all the more unbearable.

Shush the shops

But at least the shop I worked in played ‘easy listening’ music. There are some shops that may as well be nightclubs.

Now if M&S has been so bold as to scrap piped music from their stores, which other retailers would you like to see follow suit?


Thank you, Lauren. Excellent news and a very good new Convo.
In answer to your question, I am sure that all of us wish that every retailer (and restaurant etc) would stop this dreadful pointless noise pollution. However, top of my list would be Co-op; they have ignored so many complaints for so many years and their arrogant attitude is almost as annoying as their ghastly ‘music’. I certainly won’t use any of their stores until they start listening; perhaps they should take lessons from the new M&S CEO.

The nearest small town has a dire (even for rural CoOps) branch where the dastardly “Radio CoOp” blights the air. Quiet and polite comments have met with nothing but nastiuness.

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Like Richard I would love to see all shops and restaurants turn off the horrible noise. I stopped using my local co-op some years ago because of it; where I live neither Tesco nor Sainsbury’s play music, so I give them my custom instead.

I would really like one of the coffee chains such as Costa to stop forcing music on us. There is one in every town these days so we would be guaranteed one place to have a civilised snack and a chat with friends, or a peaceful read. It would be wonderful if they were forward thinking enough to do it.

This is very welcome news and it will certainly please those who have a hearing impairment and the music played havoc with their hearing aids and orientation. I guess M&S are now embarked on an evolution [to put it in management speak] of their retail style and offer and hopefully will start to sell what their actual customers want rather than what they think the customers they would like to have might want.

I thought the Coop was also embarking on a more authentic appeal to its traditional customer base so there might be some hope for an abandonment of their inappropriate music policy in due course. There’s something rather “Hi! – de – Hi!” about their loudspeaker output with pathetic promotions interspersed with off-tone renditions of musical duds.

I have been lucky and neither of the nearest M&S stores – a city centre store and a small food shop – routinely play music. I heard on the radio that getting rid of music is an attempt to arrest the declining profits of M&S.

I do hope that the Co-Op and B&Q put an end to music in their stores.

The retailers share a belief that the coveted 18 – 30 age group actively enjoys piped music – often at levels that would paralyse a bat – and thus believe such noise is linked to their profits. They haven’t yet cottoned on to the simple fact that everyone enjoys different types of music, and most like it unencumbered with the merry sounds of semi-hysterical children demanding sweets, or the rhythmic beeping of the often stridently voiced and always over-righteous self-service checkouts. And why does none of them ever play Mozart?

Towards the end of 2014 I wrote to Mr M Bolland, the then CEO of M&S. I pointed out the huge response to the Which? Conversation on the subject of piped music. One of his staff replied with the usual corporate garbage and didn’t even bother to comment on it!

A the same time I sent a copy of a letter which M&S sent to me way back in 2005 in which they stated that piped music had been trialled in some stores; they said that the trial had been stopped due to adverse customer reaction. This point was also fobbed off with a minor comment.

Now at last we seem to have management that listens; or is it perhaps more to do with the no doubt high cost of music licences? I hope it’s the former.

I would very much like B&Q to start listening too; they have lost thousands of pounds worth of my business over many years due to their policy of forcing canned music on their customers.

Hear! Hear! Richard. “Canned music” is the right description for B&Q’s horrendous sounds: the combination of low-grade loudspeakers and a metal-clad environment plus mechanical ‘music’ is almost unbearable on its own and then it is punctuated by the wail of a “Staff Announcement” which completely destroys any remaining concentration. They even pipe the din outside into the sheds and shrubs department. At least Homebase have equipped their staff with headsets for when they need to be summoned.

I also like Mozart – but many don’t (or at least have probably never even heard the name). I dislike most of the music my children enjoyed, and certainly not at the levels played in the clubs they occasionally frequented. But in my younger days I got told off by my parents for playing records of organ music much too loudly.

The point I make is that tastes differ, as does the response to presentation. I believe given a contentious topic (many convos become thus) more people will contribute who are against something than will bother to say either I like it or I don’t care – the activist over the silent group. The best answer perhaps is for shops to carry out customer surveys to see what their potential clients want, what would happen if they chose to ditch music for example, and then come to a decision. These businesses are commercially savvy and will not make such decisions without sound consideration. You can’t please everybody. I presume stores will want to please the majority.

Forget the surveys. They might establish that quite a number of people want the music. Let’s have peace and quiet and those who want music can play what they want through earphones.

I don’t particularly like music in shops and restaurants, but I can live with it. So because someone doesn’t like it, no one else’s choice should be recognised? Is the concern that the majority might vote on favour in certain shops, but we should ignore their views? As it happens I think in most shops the vote would be against music, but in some younger people’s shops the vote would be in favour. That, of course, is just my uninformed opinion. Democracy might be uncomfortable to some.

Where public spaces are concerned I would defer to the view that no music should be played because we have often no choice but to use them (what do you do about tv in hospital and doctors waiting areas?). Where private businesses are concerned I believe they should have the freedom to do what they like, within the law and regulations, and live with the consequences. If anyone feels that strongly they can avoid shopping there, or be tolerant to others.

If there is a demonstrable hazard from broadcast music then that should figure in the assessment.

I certainly think that the interests of those with hearing impairment should be taken into account. This was a major, and very well articulated, element in the previous Conversations and should not be overlooked in the current debate by distractions over whether Mozart or muzak is the issue. People with disabilities are entitled to go about their daily business without the infliction of additional difficulties and experiences that cause them pain.

It’s a pity that those with hearing problems have not been more vocal, as their input might have put paid to music being inflicted on everyone before it became so popular.

The other group that deserves consideration is employees who have to listen to music throughout the working day. I fully appreciate that many enjoy it and others don’t feel strongly, but some do. I still remember having pop music inflicted on me in the early 70s when doing a holiday job as a student. I can still remember some of the songs that were played repeatedly. Having spoken to numerous sales assistants I know that some of them don’t like listening to music every day, sometimes volunteering that it was company policy to have it.

Then a survey would no doubt produce the result most people would hope for.

We need properly conducted surveys, elections and referenda if we wish to find out what the people think. In a democracy, on public issues, we abide by the majority. Having actions imposed upon us (and it does happen) by a minority is not my view of how living in a real democracy should be.

However I believe a business should deal with its own affairs in the way it sees best; they are not stupid and if they choose a path the rest of us disagree with then they will live with the consequences. If a store loses custom attributable to blaring out music then I would expect in the interests of its shareholders it would literally change its tune.

Malcolm – You have frequently pointed out that we need to do something about the number of polluting cars being taken into city centres and as someone who has been strongly affected by this pollution, I strongly support you. If we relied on surveys and democracy, I think we would find that the majority would want to continue to take their cars into city centres. Many things in life are too important to be left to democracy – how we support the disabled is one example.

Let’s get rid of the music and the public can decide whether they want to listen to their choice of music on their phones etc.

It’s very difficult to carry out an accurate survey about customers’ attitudes to background music in shops because so many people who dislike it will no longer be shopping there. Many people turn around at the door if they hear intrusive music and don’t even enter the shop. How will their views be taken into account?

Nigel Rodgers says:
3 June 2016

Malcolm, you’re right that tastes differ, probably more so today than ever before. One person’s perfect music can easily become another’s hellish noise. The problem with relying on stores to carry out customer surveys is that in the past these have too often shown that a huge majority loves the canned music , when clearly this is not the case. A fault with their methods, perhaps. Considering what has been happening on the High Street (think of BHS) many stores may be less commercially savvy than remarkably susceptible to the piped music industry’s propaganda. But M&S’s recent decision may cause them to think again.

Car pollution causes known harm to health. I’m pleased you support reducing cars in towns and cities rather than just relying on reduced engine emissions. Music in shops has not, as far as I know, been shown to harm health. So the two are not comparable. We must, where hazards, for example, are not involved, respect other peoples views and wishes and not seek to impose our own upon them. Certainly putting constructive arguments forward to influence people is fine but others have just as much right to make their own decisions as we have. That is my view. I may not like the outcome though 🙂 Try general elections as a prime example.

It;s not just about “liking” music; there are millions of people with hearing impairments and mental health issues, who are excluded from using many shops/restaurants/banks/health centres etc because they simply cannot cope with all that unnecessary noise… A venue that doesn’t provide ramps for wheel chair users, for example, would be severely criticised – but it’s ok to neglect all those with “invisible” health problems?

Ina, no of course it is far from OK to neglect those for whom music may be harmful – I said this earlier in this Convo. I have suggesting that in public places we have to use, music should not be played. In private places I have suggested companies and proprietors, if they currently provide music, could do a survey of their clients (a simple paper questionnaire) to uncover both their feelings for or against music and any problems, such as to those with hearing impairment, it might cause. The business can then make their decision on the information provided; that would not, necessarily, be on a majority if other problems caused override the general feeling. I was simply pointing out that just because a vociferous group might simply dislike music and wish it to be banned is not what i regard as a fair way to resolve this.

Perhaps on a clinical analysis music broadcast in shops does not cause harm to health, but many of the people who wrote in to previous Conversations on this topic said how much pain and discomfort it caused because it interfered with their use of a hearing aid, even causing spatial disorientation when they were trying to cope with conflicting sound sources. I go along with what Ina says. In my view that is an overriding consideration that requires no further justification or consultation.

Lisa says:
4 June 2016

I have tinnitus, silence can be quite painful actually. I have also worked in shops with music and places without. The music, even when its not something I like or would ever listen to on my own would often make the shift go by faster. I only lasted about a month working at the place with silence before it started driving me mad. Music therapy helps a lot of people, not just those of us with tinnitus, but also many with autism. I have very dear friends who find the music a source of comfort that can help them ease into going out in public where they normally get too turned off by crowds of people and chatting. My point is just there are always other sides, it sounds like this campaign was lead more by individual annoyances than consideration.

Music may be a source of comfort, but which music depends on the individual. Music is not simply a generic entity; I find that Schubert songs calm me down and make the world a better place, but plenty of people would probably find them as unbearable as I find rock. Until we find a type of music everyone finds comforting, surely it is better to have none and leave it to individuals to import their own on personal music systems.

Lisa, I am sorry for your problems with tinnitus; I know it can be maddening and very stressful. But it isn’t really fair to portray those who want music as it relaxes them as having “needs” and those for whom it causes stress, anxiety or lack of ability to communicate due to hearing impairment as merely suffering from an “individual annoyance”

But Lisa does make a very salient point.

Little story… As a young boy of ten I was learning the piano and had (so I was told) done rather well. I was taught by a Royal Academy trained tutor, and gained my Grade 8 Distinction at the age of twelve, so I suppose I wasn’t too bad. We were from a grindingly poor family, so when we went on holiday we had to take the bus – as it happened, to Llandudno.

Because my only music training had been Classical, Romantic, Contemporary and Baroque that was really the only music to which I ever listened. But our first holiday on the bus coincided with the advent of cheap transistor radios, and there was an apparent presumption on the part of anyone who had one that everyone on the bus wanted to hear their music, so the volume was turned up and the sound almost drowned out conversation. Naturally, it was playing ‘music’ I loathed (as if anyone would play Mozart loudly…) but it left a lasting impression on me. I was astonished, even as a child, by how thoughtless and arrogant people could be by assuming that what they liked everyone should.

I went on to study performance piano at the Royal Northern, but the experience of the bus never left me. It’s very much the same with this debate. There’s an inbuilt assumption that most feel the same way about music in shops or restaurants, but I suspect that’s far from the truth. I wonder, for instance, how many of those complaining loudly can’t exist without music in their own cars, putting it on as soon as the engine starts.

I dislike the Co-op’s racket as much as anyone, but I don’t find it interferes as I simply block it out. The simple fact is that the growing trend of store-brand radio is seen as essential for advertising alone in many places, which is possibly why it’s ubiquitous. But we also have to admit some things: that very few people will all like the same music, that the music you enjoy is conditioned by emotional tethering that occurs quite early in adolescence, that some people – like Lisa, for instance – actually need music, some people find it affects their ability to hear or to communicate and some – like me – detest the type of music but would happily shop or eat to any Baroque or Classical music (Romantic might cause indigestion 🙂 . But whatever the varying issues, campaigning for a blanket ban may not be the wisest or most compassionate approach in the long term.

I understand what you are saying, Lisa, but shops without music are not silent. There is plenty of background noise, conversation, announcements, lift signals, till beeps, general clatter, sounds coming in from the street, etc, so I suspect it is not silence that is the problem but the absence of the music to which you have become accustomed. Because the response to different types of music is so individual I cannot see any general answer to this.

I do believe a blanket ban to be appropriate, given the ease with which it is possible for people to carry around their own music with them, and the obvious distress caused to so many by canned music.

Incidentally, I remember only too well the appearance of transistor radios and the sight and sound of large numbers of selfish people blasting their choice of music into everyone else’s ears.

Alun says:
5 June 2016

“Many things in life are too important to be left to democracy”? Which of the many versions of totalitarian dictatorship would you prefer? Presumably the version where your priorities are foisted on the rest of us!

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I rather thought Alun was advocating democracy, rather than a minority foisting their wishes onto the rest. Certainly I am in favour of majority decisions, providing they are based on sufficient knowledge to make a rational decision, including mitigating circumstances.

The way the ground is being prepared for the EU referendum is certainly not being based on sound facts, but partisan opinions. If business behaved in the way government currently does they’d probably be bankrupt. There should be a home for politicians who lack the ability or the sense to construct sound arguments. I’d be happy to have part of my Which? annual subscription used to fund it. They could play music day and night to keep them calm. Beethoven’s 9th?

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Wonderful! Irony at its best, Malcolm!

Oh dear; I wonder who doesn’t know what ‘irony’ means?

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If you don’t speak with sincerity (or irony) what is the point? We can have enough of deceit and obfuscation. Information and facts may be unpalatable to some, as may straightforward talking, but it can be good to air your true feelings and wait for the reaction. As long as your mind is receptive. Here endeth……………..

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Well, I believe the place would be the poorer without either of you. It’s the entire basis of any sort of debating forum: sincerely held and often opposing views expressed with humour and conviction.

But I did enjoy the Beethoven aside… 🙂

Suffice to say I would walk through any store who played one of my favourite recording artists George Jones singing words (without any irony) which in my humble opinion are very fitting if you are searching for anything in particular!

Walk through this world (store) with me
Go where I go
Share all the dreams with me
I need you so
In life we search
And some of us find
I’ve searched for you
A long long time
And now that I’ve found you
New horizons I see
Come take my hand
And walk through this world (store) with me.

If you are brave enough and able to enjoy the real thing you can easily find it on YouTube.com – Walk Through This World With Me – George Jones. 1932 – 2013 🙂


I don’t think I have ever heard George Jones or any other country singer being played in a shop or shopping centre. My own preference is for no music in that kind of environment, but one of the complaints many people have is that most places have such a limited playlist. It’s mostly relatively recent chart hits where I live.


Without diverting too much from the main topic, the type of music played in stores has a marked effect on the personality of the listener. For example, there is a strong correlation between personality and musical preference and research studies have used The Big Five Model Personality Traits as their reasons for determining ones personality, such as openness to experience, neurotism and conscientiousness, extraversion and introversion. Also how age and gender plays a very important role.

If interested to know more, log onto en.m.wikipedia.org
Psychology of Music Preference – Big Five Model.

The article is extremely enlightening and explains how music (or lack of it) has a positive or negative effect on the listener in certain situations.

Thanks Beryl, I will look at that article later.

I agree it would be good if B&Q and the Co-op, who shared the top “prize” with M&S in the earlier conversation for playing the most annoying background music, could follow M&S’s example and turn off their music, too. I’d also like to see it go at Costa. It is quite unnecessary there. Each branch I’ve been in is so busy that you can’t hear the music anyway. It’s just an extra layer of noise.
This morning an assistant in my local M&S told me how pleased she was that the music had been turned off. She said that she had had to listen to the same loop hour after hour and would be completely frazzled by the end of the day…

I live within walking distance of Asda and use it a lot. I really have a problem with their “radio station”. I’m English, but have lived in Scotland for 40 years and every time I hear “Asdereffem” I’d quite like to scream. (Where’s the “R” in Asda FM??)
I used their feedback form to explain that being forced to listen to music I didn’t choose is maddening and that I need quiet to think if I’m planning what to buy and that I leave the store angry quite often. I also said that, on principle, I would never buy anything advertised on Asdereffem. I asked them to address my points and not send a template reply. They sent a template reply. This proves that they genuinely do not care about their customers.
It would be nice to think that Asda might give this some thought, realise that M&S has just done something to prove they do care and follow suit. I’m also expecting to see squadrons of pigs doing a flypast…

Typical. In my experience it’s no use going through any feedback or customer services; always head for the top and write to the CEO, asking specific questions that need an answer in order to deter a template reply. Preferably do this on paper; I believe it to be much more noticeable than yet another email among thousands.

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George says:
4 June 2016

Congratulations to M&S for seeing sense and joining John Lewis, Wetherspoons, Costco (Edinburgh) and other companies who accept that customers go to shops to buy stuff, but not to have something called a “shopping experience” enhanced by exposure to aural pollution.

Not only stores and restaurants but South Lanarkshire Council plays blaring music in its Sports Centres which I and others find awful. They never respond to complaints from Council Tax payers

Write to them quoting the Freedom of Information Act and ask them how much they are spending on music licences to play music in public places. My guess is that it’s enough to cause a lot of interest in the press. Do let us know what happens.

Lisa says:
4 June 2016

Although I am not fond of very loud music, I must say I am very disappointed by this. A little music in stores, when I hear something I like, often pumps me up and makes me forget about the horribly rude people I’m surrounded by. If its not a song I like I still appreciate the sound as for me music is a calming and pleasurable experience. Silence on the other hand drives me mad. I have hearing issues and tinnitus so while loud music can be challenging, silence and white noise raise my blood pressure and stress levels. Headphones can often be very painful to use. Music therapy brings a lot of joy to a lot of people, so rather than going for the extreme of all or nothing, wouldnt a better compromise to have been to ask for stores to put on something with proven therapeutic use very quietly instead? There is most definitely multiple arguments on this, I am rather disheartened by these arguments quite honestly.

I doubt very much that there is any music that has proven therapeutic use for everyone, as everyone has different tastes and hearing or medical problems.

Also, I don’t want to be “medicated” by music or manipulated in any way when I shop or eat out.

Did you know that you can buy custom moulded ear tips for headphones? Perhaps they would be more comfortable for you so that you could take your own music to mask your tinnitus.

I love music in stores as puts me in a good mood but then I’m 32 years of age, proberbly younger then the average age of which subscriber..

It’s difficult to define what an “injury to health” consists of. After five minutes in Morrison’s, our worst local offender, my palms are sweaty, my heartbeat has increased, and there’s a tightness in my chest which I associate with blind rage – all psychological symptoms but no less unpleasant for that. So I try not to shop there, but unfortunately the only other supermarket within reasonable reach is the Co-op, which is almost as bad. To a degree it may be a generational problem. Anyone under 30 has been brought up in an atmosphere of constant noise and may find silence actually disturbing; my nephew finds our house “creepy” because it doesn’t have a television playing constantly in the background. My solution to Morrison’s when I have to go there is an ipod, a set of tiny Bluetooth in-ear headphones, and Bach; surely those who want music while shopping can kit themselves out likewise?

Some of the above comments mention ‘music’ e.g. “I love music in stores as puts me in a good mood”. The problem is that’s a bit like saying “I love food as it puts me in a good mood” – what, any food? hungry or not? No-one would tolerate being force-fed just because it is known that people like food.
Perhaps the problem is the difference between those that notice the music and those who just like the existence of any musical sounds but do not listen to them.
I would suggest that most of those who do not listen but just like background sounds would not really notice the absence of music. Those that can’t avoid listening to the music will only ever be happy on the very rare occasion that something they like, and are in the mood for, is being played, and will be angry the rest of the time. Numerically those that are actually upset by ‘no music’ must be in a tiny minority. These days it is very cheap and easy to carry your own which, unless you insist on playing it so loudly that the sound leaks out , will have absolutely no effect on the rest of us – everyone happy!

I’m delighted M & S have stopped playing background music. I frequently have to get out of various shops because their offerings prevent me from concentrating on what I’m trying to do: shopping. This may be a man thing… In general, I think music should be listened to.

Heike Perry says:
4 June 2016

Hate going into H&M as music always too loud (apart from not being my type of music). I have left the shop on occasions as I could not bear to stay and being subjected to it any longer.

… and another thing! Tesco in NI, and the shopping Mall in Lisburn, play tapes on which a chap with local accent reminds us about the advantages of the shop etc. Fine. In his seemingly ubiquitous role, he also admonishes that we mustn’t park in the parent/child spaces, or inconsiderately use the ‘accessible toilets’. OK advice indeed, but his carefully auditioned, almost-chortling, avuncular – but treacly patronising, paternal and pub-mate manner – irritates beyond measure. If I’m to be told off, then I would prefer it not to be disguised. Am I alone in that I would appreciate a snarling announcement such as:
‘Don’t block the designated parking spots, or occupy the accessible toilets, you lazy, inconsiderate lot.’

Just a thought. Perhaps I shouldn’t get out so much.

Susan Perkins says:
4 June 2016

Sainsbury’s and Morrisons have ghastly so called music blasting all the time. I would also like to sit in a doctors waiting room without hideous noise called music being forced on me. A bit more soothing music if they must have it would lower blood pressure.