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Glenn Kurtz Headshot

The Marriage of Music and Place

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I'd like to propose a new rating system for restaurants, cafes, and bars. Instead of the tired old star system, or some highly poetic, but thoroughly individual review of how the food or drinks taste and are served, my proposal is to rate all public locales by the music they play.

This rating system is based on the belief that music does not merely fill space and time, but shapes space and time. In other words, whether as foreground or background, ambient music is like the soundtrack of our experience, profoundly affecting how we feel about and relate to a place.

My system does not imply anything about the style of the music. There are plenty of places where screeching, screaming, thumping, pounding music is entirely appropriate and welcome, and which can therefore play this music with complete integrity for the delight of its customers. A dance club playing dance music seems like an excellent marriage of music and place.

The same music, however, played at the corner café, where people gather to talk, to read, and to write blogs, and where screeching, screaming, thumping, pounding music is played primarily to keep the staff from falling asleep over their cappuccino machines -- this would be an example, in my opinion, of irreconcilable differences between music and place. The music prevents you from enjoying the place.

My rating system, therefore, describes the relationship between music and place in terms of the emotional communication between the two. It has the following gradations, from best to worst:

1. Intuitive. ("You always know how I'm feeling!")

2. Friendly. ("Um, okay. I can see your point.")

Neutral. ("I'm sorry, did you say something?")

4. Obnoxious. ("You don't care how I feel!")

It's a very personal kind of rating system, I admit. But I believe that if enough people subscribe to it, the demand for sensitive musical choices in public locations everywhere will increase, and life will improve for everyone.

One more category needs to be mentioned. If we understand the relationship between music and place in emotional terms, then this final category has many qualities of the best: it recognizes the moods and functions of a place, while seeking to delight and please the customers. But these qualities are passive-aggressive: they are used with ulterior motives, most often to sell you something. This final category, therefore, is:

5. Manipulative. ("You say you care, but I don't trust you!")

Two kinds of location define this category for me. Chain bookstores, especially during December (is there a limit to the number of times one can hear "Winter Wonderland" before suffering permanent damage?) and a certain ubiquitous "café."

How do your favorite places rate?