For most people background music means Muzak. The much maligned soundscape was created in the 1920s by George Owen Squier, a former US Army officer who developed a new way to transmit audio through wires.
His invention led to the creation of a company called Wired Music, which enabled businesses to broadcast music in offices and commercial premises. In 1934, in homage to the wildly successful camera company Kodak, Wired Radio was renamed Muzak.
Music, even when you are barely aware of it, can be surprisingly powerful. Over recent decades researchers have found that it can affect how much time we think, how we shop, and even how sweet or bitter food tastes. One study found that shoppers’ preference for French or German wine shifted according to which of the respective countries’ traditional music was playing from a nearby set of speakers.
There are two main ways psychologists think about the effects that music can have on us. The first is physical. Numerous studies have confirmed our common sense assumption that we often subconsciously match what we are doing to what we hear. In 1985, for instance, one study found that diners chewed at a faster pace when higher-tempo music was played.
The second approach focuses on the associations that music can trigger and how the environment we are in affects those associations. One 1998 study found that diners in a cafeteria were willing to spend more money when classical music was played in the background than when there was no music at all.
We know for a fact that background music affects us. Now the question is, does the background noise of our lives affect our music?
Every person who walks through your doorway has background noise in their lives, including you. The noises can be intellectual, physical, or emotional. It can be professional or personal. It can be joyful or filled with sorrow. It's a fight with a spouse or sickness in the family. It's struggles with money or issues with children. It might be an impending celebration or a new relationship. It might be a spilled cup of coffee on a new tie or a traffic jam on the way to work. Whatever it is, these noises have an effect on our teaching and our student's learning.
How does the background noise affect our teaching and our students' learning? I don't know, but I wonder:
In times of sadness does the music we make have a darker sound?
In times of joy are our tempos slightly faster?
In times of angst are our articulations harsher?
In times of anger are our fortes louder?
In times of confusion do we play more wrong notes?
In times of extreme sadness or joy do we play more sharp or flat?
In times of exhaustion, does the precision of our rhythms suffer?
It would be hard to quantify, mediate or account for all of the background noises our students bring each and every day, but it is possible to be aware of our own noises and how they affect our students. I know for myself, too often, in ways good and bad, I let the background noise of my life affect the music education experiences my students received.
And in that way, I guess I was their Muzakical Maestro.