Music on the metro

Travelling on the excellent (and frequent) Valencia metro this morning, I noticed that music was played in the background. Or, to be more precise, I noticed it after a while. I started my travel in the middle of the city centre in the rush hour, so most of the soundscape was composed of three elements:

  • the noise of the metro cars while moving
  • the noise of the massive ventilation system inside the metro cars (I am not really sure why they made so much noise, but at least the air was fresh)
  • the noise of people speaking

Since most people left at the stations in the city centre, I was travelling more or less alone the last part out to the airport. And it was then that I noticed that music was being played. It was not unpleasant, but it was surprising. I am used to background music in shopping malls, etc., but not on public transportation. While playing soft background music may be a successful method of making people feel more comfortable, I found this particular example to be disturbing in, at least, two ways: culturally and sonically.

First, in a city like Valencia, which also has quite a lot of tourists, I think that music could be used effectively as a way of building up under the identity of the city. However, the music being played was a series of US American pop classics, with various male singers. This in itself was a cultural clash which I think was quite unfortunate. I was sitting there hoping that the next song would be of a local/national artist, but no.

The second problem relates to the sonic presence of the music. Due to a combination of the poor frequency response of the speakers and the noise of the metro, most of the musical sound was masked more or less all the time. Particularly most of the accompaniment (bass, drums, guitars) was more or less inaudible. This left only (parts) of the vocals to be heard. Dependent on the noise level (less continuous when we stopped at stations), the presence of the voice would faint in and out of the soundscape.

All in all, although I found it to be an interesting sonic experiment, my main impression is that it was an unsuccessful example of using music in a public space. I think it would have been much better if they had used music that was (a) somehow related to the city, and (b) mixed so that it would actually be audible through the noise.

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Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.