/ 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?


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Ah, taking a specific task such as studying and extending the results to cover all situations is not a supportable argument. I would not have expected our design and office staff to have listened to background music, nor did they suggest it, but those on more routine jobs on the factory floor did ask for and enjoyed it. To be fair, the music was not “controversial” in its genre – not too loud, neutral enough for most tastes.

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Duncan, my take on Malcolm’s point is that the desire to “whistle-while-you-work” is task specific – not IQ specific.

I enjoying having background music if I’m driving but I don’t want it when I’m doing desk work. I don’t actually find it distracting then – but if I’m concentrating properly on design and analysis work, I end up just blanking it out – so then there is no point in putting it on in the first place.

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duncan, not at all. I was drawing no distinction between the “intelligence”, as you put it, of the different groups of staff. Simply the type of job they had chosen to do. One requires, for example, concentration on problems, interaction directly or by phone with outsiders such as suppliers or customers, where obtrusive background music would have been inappropriate. The other involved more routine and repetitive work where, as when I am in my workshop or the garden for example, music in the background is “company”.

I think suggesting that unintelligent people are put in certain jobs and intelligent in others is a perception that is well out of date. Ability is different, as we see from people for example who do degrees, apprenticeships, trades.

“Music While You Work” on the BBC radio Light Programme was introduced during the Second World War because the government thought it would improve morale and, as a side effect, boost productivity. It was intended primarily for factories but anyone with a wireless receiver could listen and it was popular in the home. With most of the working population engaged in essential war work this was a matter for government intervention and most large manufacturers relayed the morning and afternoon broadcasts into their workplaces. In those days most production was very repetitive, either turning out identical units in huge volumes or, as in textile mills, making similar items from the same plain material for days on end, so it was helpful in relieving boredom and production fatigue. Remarkably it was still going strong into the 1960’s which roughly coincides with when the UK manufacturing sector started to decline due to a range of factors including industrial obsolescence, lack of innovation, outdated management culture, disputatious trade union behaviour, and a rising standard of living which brought foreign alternatives to the market. The Music While You Work programmes were generally regarded as helpful and it was accepted that they contributed to improved performance, although they were denied to probably half the workforce who worked outdoors, in mines, public transport, schools, hospitals, shops and offices, or were in the armed services. The conditions for which MWYW were most suited hardly apply today and I don’t think shop workers should be suffering monotony for which music is the appropriate relief.

“Music while you work” was only played for half hour in the morning and half hour in the afternoon. I expect it seemed like a welcome diversion from worries about the war and loved ones, and did seem to improve productivity. The type of music was carefully chosen though and the volume kept in check.

We live in such a different world now, one in which noise is everywhere and inescapable.

“We live in such a different world now, one in which noise is everywhere and inescapable.” I lived in an industrial city when Music While You Work was broadcast and I’d say it was as noisy then as now – certainly I don’t see today being significantly worse. Throngs of people were just as noisy, there were noisy trams, buses, steam trains, rattling goods trains. Every Sunday morning a Boys Brigade bugle and drum band slowly made its way up our road, ensuring a lie-in was an awake one. But we managed to live through that as part of life. We also I suggest have just as many worries now as then, just replacing some types with other types.

Everyone’s life experience is different. I was not alive during WW2 and I didn’t live in an area surrounded by factories as I was growing up but I now live near a road where the traffic does not stop, day or night, whereas you now live in a rural area.

I think that many people’s hearing was probably damaged by the noise in factories during and after WW2. Now there is more protection for such workers.

To be sure there were industrial areas that were very noisy in your youth, but I think that more people are generally affected by noise now than then.

At the beginning of the twentieth century there were about 8,000 cars in Britain, now there are about 35 million. The WHO considers noise pollution from cars to be a serious problem.

However, when I made the comment about noise I was thinking more of the topic of this convo, which is almost inescapable “music” in public places.

My point about “music while you work” was that half hour in the morning and half hour in the afternoon might have seemed like a pleasant change ( or maybe not if they didn’t like it). It certainly would not have been Mariah Carey screaming her lungs out!

While not strictly on M&S I was wondering why people are getting more peeved. As I never go the places mentioned I can only guess excessive volume may be a component. I did complain at a pub a few moths ago and it was changed and subsided somewhat. Rock music and fine dining!!

This latest research is interesting as it addresses sound irritation and a concern of mine regarding continual loud music and the effect on the Walkman and later generations where ear-pods can produce loud sounds and they are warn for considerable periods.

The article does not really spend anytime on cause but the effects so early in life must be worrying.

The nature of the early tinnitus and irritability with noise ,,,,
Tinnitus is associated with reduced sound level tolerance in adolescents with normal audiograms and otoacoustic emissions


I have a friend in her forties who got a Walkman as soon as they appeared and has been wearing ear buds in public places ever since then. She already has quite a bit of hearing loss and frequently has to ask people to repeat what they said.

Of course, this may have happened to her anyway but there seems to be no genetic hearing loss in her family and she works in a quiet environment.

I don’t think it’s just the volume, dieseltaylor; it’s the fact that it’s becoming more and more widespread. Not just some shops and restaurants but virtually all of them. And now banks and medical practices. Perhaps people are becoming more peeved because this continual background noise is encroaching further into their own space.

I have been campaigning against unnecessary background music for some time. I’ve been amazed at the way the music industry keeps citing “research” which shows that playing music is good for sales. I am sad enough to have even read some of the papers in full. The famous one by Milliman certainly concluded that playing music can influence the behaviour of shoppers. He reported a 38.2% increase in sales volume when slow tempo music was played, rather than fast tempo music. However, what the music industry never reports is that Milliman also concluded that “there was no statistically significant difference in sales volume between [no music] and [slow tempo music].” He also says that “only instrumental selections were employed in this experiment” and “the music’s volume level was set to be perceived as soft background music” Hardly the stuff that is being churned out in most shops today!

Another seminal paper by Yalch and Spangenberg in1993 is often mentioned by the music industry because it demonstrated that people made more purchases when music was playing. However, what Yalch and Spangenberg also discovered was that the average amount spent per person making a purchase (as opposed to the number of shoppers) was highest in the NO MUSIC condition. The music industry never reports that latter fact.

I could go on and on with examples but I will spare you! However, recently I’ve been noticing a definite trend towards people becoming aware of the dangers of loud music, and also a desire for more “quiet”. I am very much hoping that the decision by M&S to turn off their background music might encourage other businesses to do the same. M&S say they did “extensive research” before reaching this decision. Please could other businesses do the same and read the research in full rather than be guided by the very people who have a vested interest in getting them to play background music?

Dorothy, may I agree with you that research should be fully read before drawing particular conclusions. I am in favour of knowing real facts when considering a decision. These should include effects on different groups of people, if known rather than surmised.

I am always a little wary of “campaigns” and campaign groups, because they, clearly, have taken a particular point of view and then seek to persuade others to the cause. Rather like being selective in quoting from research they might (perish the thought) be less than forthcoming about information that does not support their campaign. Regrettably some Which? campaigns (even) fall into this category.

I might be hard to shift from some of my preconceived ideas but I do like to see fair, balanced and factual cases put forward, particularly when we want to change something. An example of a campaign that exemplifies all that is bad (in my view) is the EU Brexit/Remain one. Have you ever seen worse attempts to influence an intelligent electorate (well, apart from General Elections perhaps)?


Not sad at all, like many of us you have had enough.

Do you , by any chance, have a link to the Yalch and Spangenberg research?

It is the ubiquity of it all that tires us out; there is no real choice as it seems to be everywhere. Even my new dentist, who has a tiny waiting room, with seats and receptionist desk in the size of a box bedroom, has a TV screen playing adverts for dental products on a loop. (A little tune plays in the background of it as well as the voice over).

There are even spas and hotels that now have underwater speakers in the swimming pool. You aren’t even allowed to drown yourself in peace to get away from it…..

Hope this link works, Dax5

My dentist plays local radio in his waiting room (I think radio is the cheapest option when it comes to purchasing music licences). On my last but one visit I had to listen to a quiz, two car adverts and some rap music, none of which I wanted to hear. On my last visit I was given graphic details of a child abuse and murder case. Trouble with radio and TV news channels is that the doctor/dentist has no control over what might be broadcast. I have written to my dentist but was assured that everyone else liked it…

Thank you Dorothy. The link was fine, and it’s not too long to read through. Well done finding these things.

I have sat in hospital waiting rooms when accompanying a relative who has a lot of health problems where everyone has had to put up with daytime television programmes discussing cheerful subjects such as Alzheimers disease and the spread of global terrorism. Lovely…

I think the M&S decision will be greeted with great relief by many shoppers as they can now use their mobile phones with less interference.


bill says:
8 June 2016

i was talking to there customer service about the music today they said they have had a lot of people complaining that the music has stopped also lot a of people on facebook twitter hare not happy about it.

Sally says:
8 June 2016

That’s odd, Bill. Did you look at the comments from the press coverage last week? It was something like 95% supporting M&S switching off the music and 5% opposing it. I asked the staff in my local M&S and so far most seem happy although one or two in our local M&S outlet are finding it a bit quiet. As a customer I am loving being able to browse again.

Hmmm… forgive my prejudice, but “lots of people on Facebook/Twitter” says something significant about that democratic to me.

Suggests that M & S are getting it right!

We’ve all gone a bit off topic. Lauren from Which? asked which other retailers we would like to see removing piped music. Here’s my list: Co-op, who have ignored years of complaints, and B&Q who’s stores resemble discos. Also Spar, who broadcast Radio 2 with its irritating chatter in between the pop music. However, I’m sure Lauren has noticed that most of want all retailers to follow the M&S example, and not just the few on my hit list!

Perhaps we should all be very grateful that, unlike some multimedia webpages – their is no “soundtrack” or background music that comes as a part of Which? Convo!

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patrick donnelly says:
10 June 2016

My favourite music in shops – piped silence! Such a difference.

Sally says:
10 June 2016

I notice that Boots UK has a new boss. Perhaps he can be persuaded to follow the lead of M&S. In some ways the music in Boots is worse than the music that used to be played in M&S. Often the music from the different make-up counters is competing with Boots’s own music and results in a cacophony of noise. If their pharmacy is within earshot of the music I don’t use it (after coming across an online forum for pharmacists in which some of them were complaining that they couldn’t concentrate on doing their prescriptions when background music was playing!)

I would also like to see the music turned off in Boots. Also Costa and all banks and building societies. It’s so unprofessional to have a television in the corner blaring away in a bank, right above the counters where you need to hear what is being said.

Also, I find Wilkinson’s, an otherwise useful store, to have some of the worst and loudest music. Most songs are interrupted at least once for a staff announcement, so what is the point of having it on at all?

Completely agree. Boots is one of the worst offenders and it’s almost impossible to find a coffee chain in London that’s free from the menace of canned music. Interestingly some branches of Cafe Nero (e.g. Blackwells Oxford) and the CoOp (in Charlbury) don’t have it – probably because the locals objected – so it is possibel. More and more banks are succumbing and almost always the staff say they can do nothing about it. Wilko used to be OK, but have succumbed. I never go to the DIY “sheds” because of it.
Dentists, GPs and the NHS Blood donor clinics increasingly are offenders. The latter cite patient privacy (a dubious claim as you’re forced to speak up to be heard). I’ve given up trying to get the message across to dentists. I always take my noise-cancelling headphones to the GP surgery – the last thing an ill patient wants is to be made worse by somene elses music. I seriously consider stopping my blood donations every time I go because of the loud music.

Jacquie Wain says:
16 June 2016

Robert hello. Do noise-cancelling headphones block out all sound? I am driven to distraction at the gym by wailing divas fretting on about their bad life-choices. Would these headphones help?

Sorry Jacquie – no! They are great at constant noises – e.g. the roar of a planes engines, but you still hear the “outline” of the music, and it’s potentially even more annoying. Tried it!

I still make a habit of telling the staff/management if my anger hasn’t reached such proportions that the only way is a rapid exit!!


This is a risk self assessment check list for pharmacists for purposes of insurance. It’s an American company, but clearly they have assessed loud background music as a distraction risk. See non distraction policy if Which? allows the link.


Sally says:
11 June 2016

Thank you for that, Dax5. Could be useful ammunition in getting pharmacies to switch off music. Wonder if there is a British equivalent. Will have a look.

Ah, that is good news: I might start going to M&S again if the reports are true that they’re ending their noise pollution.
Broadcasting music in a “public” space is inevitably going to annoy at least some people who either don’t like the music played or simply don’t want to listen to it at that time. Like many others, I find unwanted noise (especially “music”) a major source of irritation, and very often the chosen material is musically semi-literate, so I either leave immediately or buy the item I needed as quickly as possible and flee the source of the annoyance. I’m fortunate to have very good hearing (maybe that makes the problem worse?) but I’m told that people with hearing problems (a significant proportion of the population) are very badly affected by “musical” noise pollution. Staff working in chain stores often tell me how irritating they find it but are powerless in the face of “head office” policy.
One way I’ve found to reduce my irritation is by making a joke of the problem with staff and asking them to give a “Pipedown” card to pass on to their manager. (Pipedown is a non-commercial society campaigning against unwanted music and provides cards saying things like “I left your store without buying anything because of the piped music). The staff almost invariably seize the opportunity with glee. This seems to go down well in the Boots chain which is rolling out noise pollution across its stores.
I’m told that many of the worst offending chains (such as the CoOp and Boots) completely disregard complaints so presumably the head office managers responsible for imposing the noise on customers and staff have been well and truly duped by the false information from the industry about the benefits and popularity of canned music.
I can only hope that, as with M&S, if enough people continue to complain then something may change . In the meantime I’ll carry on using my noise-cancelling headphones and Pipedown cards.

I wonder how much it costs to play music in a large department store or indoor mall with multiple floors. They have to pay the music supplier who compiles the playlists and either supplies a disc or pipes the music in, usually through a satellite connection.

Then there are the PPL and PRS licences. PRS charges a higher rate for the first year and then a standard rate after that. I suppose the drop in rate encourages “customers” to keep playing the music.

A PRS licence for 10,000 square metres of audible area costs about £2,400 for the first year but I’m afraid I just can’t visualise how large an area that is compared say, with a three story shopping mall. Any thoughts?

In the UK a superstore [like a large Asda, Morrison, Sainsbury’s, Tesco or Waitrose] is generally around 30,000 square feet [3,000 square metres]. Multi-storey department stores might be several times larger. Shopping malls vary widely and are often on different levels of different areas. Presumably for music performance licences the floorspace in malls excludes the areas contained within the individual units since most retailers seem to have their own conflicting choice of music.

Thanks for that John. In my local three story shopping centre the centre music can be heard for the first thirty or so feet into individual shops. The PRS people are very keen on payment for everywhere it can be heard, indoors or out, so I assume they have to pay for that area as well. Also, you can hear it in the lift lobbies and it drifts outside the main doors as well. It’s ironic that piped music used to be called elevator music and now the lift seems to be the only place that you can escape it for a few seconds.

The shop music also “leaks” into the main centre so that they all clash horribly. I have very acute hearing and can often hear about four different sources of music.

The shops will bear the cost of the centre music in their rent and their own music has to be paid for, so we will be paying several times over for it in the goods that we buy.

I have no idea how much they pay the people who make up their play lists and pipe it in to them.

According to PEYE PRS for Music fees are £1600 per year per 10 000 sq metres of floor space.

I once asked M&S how much it cost them to play background music and was told that the information was “business sensitive”. Received the same reply from Nationwide. Was a bit miffed at the latter’s response because I am one of their customers and felt they were using my money to pay for it!

Clearly it is a business embarrassment.

Yes, that’s for the standard rate for the PRS licence. The PPL licence standard rate is about £220 per 1,000 sq metres of audible space. Both of those figures are before VAT is added.

I have not found anywhere how much the companies who organise and pipe in the actual music charge for the service.

For companies with hundreds of large stores [M&S has over 800] the total cost of the piped music service is considerable and although only a small percentage of overall operating costs it is entirely avoidable. The cost obviously inflates retail prices and the VAT gets passed through into the overall VAT paid by shoppers.

The companies that provide the music service probably charge quite a lot as they have to organise the transmission system and pay the carriers for airtime, supply and maintain the in-store receiver and broadcast equipment, identify the playlist specification, source the music tracks and cover all the copyright and reproduction issues [maybe some overlap here with the PRS who deal with artistes’ royalties]. To the extent that original artistes’ recordings are rarely used there is presumably an organisation hidden within this web that commissions and records the cover versions using session artistes and musicians. Ignoring all other concerns with regard to piped music, the notion that the annual costs are exceeded by additional profits seems hard to sustain.

The PRS collected over £500 million last year for distribution as royalties. Much of that money comes from firms who use music in their workplaces but I would not be surprised if half of it came from retailers and shopping malls. Added to the broadcast service charges and VAT that’s a lot of money added to consumers’ shopping bills. Another good reason to keep protesting about this annoyance since we are paying for it through the nose as well with our ears.

How on earth banks and building societies can justify this expense when their charges are so high and their interest rates so low amazes me. They give this weak excuse that background music helps preserve customer confidentiality. Well, if they had kept a bit more of the mahogany instead of turning their branches into open plan leisure lounges they might not have had such a problem.

Good that Waterstones have looked at this and made what is, no doubt, a commmercial decision that many will favour.

Excellent news about Waterstones! As we know, lots of their shops had scrapped canned music already; when visiting these I always congratulated the staff, telling them that had they been playing music they would have sold nothing to me because I wouldn’t have come into their store. Hopefully my comments might have had a hand in Waterstone’s recent decision! Hmmm…..

I’ve just read the ‘This is Money’ article. It doesn’t say that a complete ban has been imposed, and it looks as though we might be in the same situation as we have been for some time, whereby individual branch managers are free to decide whether or not to use piped music.

I went into a Waterstones a few days ago that still had music playing.

Yes indeed; the article states that three quarters of Waterstone stores have stopped the piped music. This is old news really.

I am pleased that M&S have stopped the music and hope that many more will follow suit. I always walk out of pubs and restaurants that play music and keep my visit to shops with music to an absolute minimum.