Sunday, December 19, 2010

Starbucks Music Mask

(A link at the end of this post allows you to hear and download an mp3 called Starbucks Music Mask.  It's a sound file designed to mask the music and extraneous sound of Starbucks and elsewhere.)

I walk lots. I often walk to local coffee shops where I spend time reading before I walk home.  I call it exercise.  Since Starbucks has many convenient locations in Pasadena, a large percentage of my coffee shop reading goes on there.  Apparently there is no such thing as a Starbucks where they don't play continuous background music.

I like music.  I listen to music lots.  I think about and create music.  My life has been pretty much devoted to it.  I have strong opinions about music.  I can be very distracted by music which I don't like.

Careful readers of Mixed Meters will remember that I keep a list of my all-time least favorite music.  This list includes the music Richard Wagner, La Monte Young, Elliott Carter and Joni Mitchell.  (No, I don't think they have anything in common besides earning my personal distaste.)

Most Starbucks locations play music too loudly for me and they seem to choose only music from a certain narrow palette.  That's infuriating.  Rarely someone forgets to turn the music on.  I like that.  One local location does not broadcast music on their outside patio area.  I find this space rather pleasant in spite of the fact that it faces a busy intersection.

Shadows of table and chair at a Starbucks patio where they play no music


One day I walked into my local Starbucks to discover that they were blasting a tune by one of my least favorite composers.  No, it wasn't anything by Wagner, Young or Carter.  Can you imagine a world where Starbucks played those guys?  I can't.  Of course it was Joni Mitchell.

I casually told a Barista "Joni Mitchell is on my list of least favorite musicians."  He smiled broadly,  saying "Me, too" he gave me a high five and abruptly walked away.  A moment later Joni was cut off in mid-parking lot and some reggae came on.  I was much happier with reggae and so was he.  Apparently they're allowed to adjust the music only if a customer complains.  I didn't feel that I had actually complained, but my remark sufficed.  Later he asked "Is Barbra Striesand on your list too?".  I told him no.  I didn't mention Wagner, Young or Carter.

Most everyone really likes some music and really hates other music and doesn't care one way or another about the rest.  I also figure that literally everyone is a potential Starbucks customer.  For years I've felt alienated by Starbucks' music selection and I suspect that many others feel the same way.  Or maybe I'm the only one listening.



Three and a half years ago, in this Mixed Meters article, I described why I purchased my first iPod.  In short, I needed an alternative to the music at Starbucks.  In specific: Willie Nelson.  To my surprise today, in 2007 I wrote:
Over the years I've had surprisingly few issues with the music selection in my local Starbucks. Except at Christmas time, of course.
Starbucks' philosophy of music changed several times since then.  For a while, faced with competing coffee from McDonalds and Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks tried to morph into a music store.  They prominently displayed big racks of CDs on their own label and played the same tunes in the stores.  Their all-time marketing low point was a Paul McCartney album repeated continuously in every store for an entire day. 

A recent New York Times story (Some Venti Tunes to Go With That Latte) put a face to the Starbucks music monster.  The face belongs to Timothy Jones, executive in charge of music for Starbucks.  He got the job by owning a record store across the street from the original Starbucks in Seattle.  Here's a quote:
The coffeehouse seems to beckon to singer-songwriters, Chicago blues, Ella and Miles, soul, the blues and reggae. When selecting music, we use a coffeehouse filter.
Fascinating.  A "coffeehouse filter" goes a long way to explaining my problem with Starbucks' narrow musical palette.  Apparently Starbucks thinks of itself, at least musically, as a throwback to some idealized fifties coffee house, the sort of smoky venue where a skinny singer with long hair sings her own songs (or those of Joan Baez) and strums guitar while Maynard G. Krebs plays bongos and the audience, sipping espresso, attentively hangs on every bloody word.  Hey, man.  Cool.

My absolute worst real-life Starbucks music experiences involved live in-store performances.  One was another singer-songwriter with a guitar - Joan couldn't make it.   Who can forget the out of tune Christmas carolers singing to a tape.  I composed this 30 Second Spot while they were singing.

Of course, there are other kinds of coffee houses besides the folk-music revival coffeehouse image.  Read about the history of coffee houses.   Coffee houses have existed in many cultures and eras, presumably each incarnation was associated with some sort of music at the time.  In 17th century England, I wonder, was Samuel Pepys distracted by Henry Purcell's music on the PA system of his local coffee house?

As revealed by Mr. Jones' quote, Starbucks has added more kinds of music to the idea of "coffeehouse".   Historically these other musics are associated with different types of commercial establishments where you get other drugs besides caffeine.  At a blues club most people will not be drinking coffee.  Reggae is associated with a drug which is smoked.  Miles' favorite drug was something he snorted. 

This all suggests a new field of academic study - pharmamusicology: the study of how drugs are associated with music.  I think it might be interesting to investigate the ways social drugs have interacted with popular music over the centuries.  Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroin and hallucinogens all come to mind as having strong musical associations with various musical styles.  The worst that could happen from such a study would be to make Acid Rock even more boring than it already is.


Starbucks is far from the ideal place for music, even if they happen to play something interesting.  It's hard - sometimes almost impossible - to pay attention to the music in Starbucks.  Their stores feature countless aural annoyances - espresso machines hiss,  Frappacino blenders whizz even from within their special sound baffles, cabinets slam and people insist on talking in loud annoying voices.  Why make it even noisier by adding a continuous stream of semi-audible music to this mix?

It's not surprising to see Starbucks customers wearing earphones - presumably they've chosen favorite music in hopes of avoiding the sound distractions around them.  Maybe they're just using the headphones as ear plugs. 

I discovered that listening to music on an iPod in Starbucks doesn't always help.  If my music is less aggressive than the music on their PA system, the iPod will lose the battle.  Imagine how much amplification a Scarlatti harpsichord sonata needs to make it overpower some other piece of popular music.  The volume would need be beyond the comfort level, into the realm of hearing loss.

Of course, while I'm at Starbucks, I could set my iPod at a reasonable level and listen to my selection and their selection simultaneously.  Very John Cage.   Sometimes that even works.  I am someone who has been known to listen to two radio stations simultaneously - although for the result to be interesting the stations must be carefully selected.  

Sadly, my iPod playlist and Starbucks' playlist do not blend well.  But the act of trying to listen to  music at Starbucks gave me an idea:  I could listen to sounds in my earphones which would neutralize the sound environment of Starbucks.  Like the notion that matter and antimatter can collide and extinguish one another, I needed "antimusic" to cancel out the "music" which I didn't care to hear.   Someday, maybe an unimaginably powerful super-computer will do such massively complex noise cancellation in real time.  The result would be perfect silence.  Until then my solution is much lower tech.

I tried this first in late 2007.  On my laptop, right in Starbucks, I generated ten minutes of white noise, just a steady hiss, and saved it to my iPod.  It was soothing.  Well, sort of soothing.  But it had no effect; the distractions of Starbucks were still distracting.

I began to identify the components of the sonic environment of Starbucks, for example conversation, music and noise.  If I added random bits of these components to my white noise track and balanced the level with the "natural" conversation, music and noise in Starbucks, maybe I wouldn't be able to tell which sounds were recorded on the iPod and which were happening live.

I've worked on this idea sporadically for three years.   For some reason I took it up again in recent months and come up with a version which works for me.  Sitting in a noisy coffee house environment, I put this track on and adjust the volume.  In my experience the sound distractions are reduced considerably.  The track is not terribly interesting by itself.  That is not the intention.  But it is relaxing and has become a familiar sonic environment I can use anywhere.

The components of the current version of Starbucks Music Mask are:
  • White Noise - now randomly filtered and amplified to create variety
  • Conversation - which might have been recorded at Starbucks except I needed a recording of people talking with no background music
  • Various bumps, hits, scrapes etc - these noises came from sound effects recordings
  • Traffic Noise - not that one hears much traffic at Starbucks, but this blends well with the white noise
  • Musical Tones - various notes, long and short, mostly in the low register, some glissando slowly, some are bell-like.  I tried to limit the quantity of these sounds so they didn't start to combine into their own musical piece.
  • Birds Singing - actually mockingbirds recorded at my home.  I've never heard a mockingbird at Starbucks.  I like the singing of mockingbirds and their songs seem to fit in to this piece. 
Wow.  If you've read this far I'm definitely impressed .  All that remains is for you to get the file and try it yourself.  I've developed a kind of protocol for using Starbucks Music Mask which I've outlined on the download page in some detail.  Of course you may think of other ways to use it.  Please leave a comment.

Here's the link: Starbucks Music Mask  © 2010 David Ocker



A Mixed Meters article about David Hockney's opinion of the iPod.

Mask Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . .

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why don't you like Joni Mitchell?

docker said...

[Why don't you like Joni Mitchell?]

Because she bends and twists her musical ideas to fit her words in a way that really annoys the hell out of me. Remember, I'm the guy who believes that "real music doesn't have words".

I know there are many famous "musicians" whose work is mostly about the words they write. Bob Dylan, anyone? In my opinion, those people should be regarded as poets.

It's a challenge for someone like me to live in a world where most people appreciate music only because of the lyrics. I've never met anyone else who feels this issue quite as deeply as I do. And Joni Mitchell has come to represent, in my opinion, the ultimate example of text trumping tones.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting opinion. There is no doubt that Mitchell is a master lyricist. But the idea that her music "bends and twists" to fit her lyrics is new to me. Certainly, that is not her process. She is famous for her open tunings, and considered by many to be an exceptionally creative musician. From what I know of her process (which is considerable), she writes her lyrics to fit her chord progressions and melodies.

To compare her to Dylan, as a musician, seems particularly odd, as their approaches are completely different. Beyond that, I would say that there are many musicians who agree with me. Charles Mingus asked Mitchell to collaborate with her after hearing her (chiefly) instrumental "Paprika Plains." Herbie Hancock, who has played with her for decades, said that he never paid much attention to her lyrics before his tribute album to Joni, and that until that time his respect for her grew out of his awe of her musicianship. Other greats, like Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Brian Blade, etc. have all been drawn to the musician rather than the lyricist.

I don't think there is any doubt that she is a genius when it comes to lyrics. I guess I can understand that if you hate lyrics, you will especially hate those whose lyrics are the best. However, I and many others feel that she is at least as great a musician as she is a lyricist.

docker said...

Thanks, An, for your comment. We're going to have to agree to disagree. And why not? When I say Joni Mitchell is among my all-time least favorite musicians, I am giving a completely personal, emotional, subjective opinion. It works for me.

Of course, when I criticize a popular and highly successful creative artist I also implicitly criticize our culture's method of evaluating artists: "if more people like something it therefore must be better." is a wrongheaded idea. If an artist makes more money, he or she must be the better artist. Paul McCartney has become a bloody billionaire because of his music and, to my dismay, is probably going to define the music of my generation.

I realize that I hold a minority opinion. And I'm free to say whatever I want on my blog as long as no one reads it. (That's pretty close to true.)

I also make a point of not liking something simply because [some important person] likes it. So Jaco Pastorius' opinion is not of much use to me. I never heard of Brian Blade. I reserve the right to like (and dislike) what I chose to based only on my own opinions, not on how popular it is or what process was used to create it. Only on how it sounds to me.

I do happen to think Charles Mingus was one of the greatest 20th century musicians and I've heard Joni Mitchell's lyrics to Goodbye Porkpie Hat and they (in my opinion) ruin a sublime, transcendent melody. Sadly.

But, I took your advice and listened to Paprika Plains. The middle section (to me) was just as boring as the vocal sections, save for maybe 3 or 4 moments (totalling 20 or 30 seconds between them.) This just proves my point. There's no music here - the meaning of the songs must be in the words. (I give the benefit of the doubt that there is some meaning.)

But I went a bit beyond that tune and listened to the whole album. (Turns out my wife has over a dozen of Joni's albums and her collection is backed up on my computer.) The album did have a tune I like: The Tenth World (but the limited lyrics were in Spanish and I like that sort of Cuban Guaguancó)

When I told Leslie what I had listened to she said I should listen to Hiss of Summer Lawns. So I did. At one point my ears really perked up - there was a tune I liked. A familiar one. It was Centerpiece by Jon Hendricks. Could it be that the best Joni Mitchell tune ever was written by Jon Hendricks?

This, of course, made we want to listen to Jon Hendricks - so I dug out the album Twisted. An album just chock full of lyrics. But these lyrics really do follow the music - they were bebop tunes (and solos transcribed note for note) to which the trio added incredibly clever and pointed lyrics. Maybe the best lyrics ever.

And as I finish writing this I'm listening to Joni sing "Twisted". Great song, the music itself is wonderful. And she sings it well. In my opinion Joni Mitchell never, ever came within miles of that level of musicianship in her own tunes. So, I guess, in my opinion the best Joni Mitchell song ever was written by Wardell Grey and Annie Ross.

Red Zebra said...

When I meet somebody and the conversation turns to... "what sort of music do you like?" If the reply is "I like all music," that usually marks the end of that conversation. I didn't read your entire post yet, I just wanted to mention that.

docker said...

So Red, do you say that because you do (or want to) enjoy "all music" or because it's a good way to stop the conversation?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I've read through to the end (and comments too). You couldn't hear me (though I'm sure it would have worked well in a recording) but I was howling with laughter. Howling, I tell you!!

btw: every english speaking woman of a certain age owns the work of Joni Mitchel. It's the law

you: "We're going to have to agree to disagree. And why not? When I say Joni Mitchell is among my all-time least favorite musicians, I am giving a completely personal, emotional, subjective opinion. It works for me."

Me: more howling

I like the mocking bird and the hiss sound.

Happy time of many mini lights

ct said...

Generally, I don't hang around in places that have ambient music playing any longer than is absolutely necessary. However, that is not an option in the workplace, so when I go back to work I'm going to try the Starbucks Music Mask and see if it alleviates my problem:

I have three co-workers who whistle constantly. In all three cases, they whistle their own brief burst of notes, and repeat it without deviation.

Specimen #1 whistles a string that is approximately A - G - F - D, repeated twice in a row, with a gliss up into the A.

Specimen #2 whistles almost the same thing, but in reverse, and with a ridiculously wide vibrato on the highest pitch.

Specimen #3 whistles the longest whole notes in the entire universe.

I suppose this could be some sort of weird extraterrestrial communication. Since they always whistle that and only that, I have come to think of it as their fanfares.

Surely this behaviour violates the spirit, if not necessarily the letter, of the Geneva Convention.

This is more troubling than it might seem, because I work in a fairly noisy environment. Phones are ringing all the time. There's always lots of banging and clanging going on in one part of the building. There is loud office equipment all over the place. There is a conveyor system that sounds like robots having sex. None of that bothers me, but somehow the whistling - oh God, the horrible whistling - always manages to cut through.

I can't exactly just ask them to knock it off. Given the aforementioned environmental noise, it would come across as a plainly insane request, and several people here already assume I have a freezer full of dead hookers in various stages of disassembly. I'd prefer not to make it any worse.

So, Starbucks Music Mask to the rescue, I hope!

docker said...

@PasAdj - I never considered the gender aspect of Joni Mitchell. Thanks for that point. Her songs seem to come from her experiences, of course. But there's nothing inherently female or male about the music - the melodies, harmonies or rhythms - is there?

@ct - interesting story. It sounds like a really oppressive sound environment. I hope SMM works for you. I'll be very surprised (and pleased) if it does. You might need a special mask with the sounds around you including the whistling - the idea being that by blending the annoying sound steadily but unpredictably into the soundscape, when your three specimens whistle in real life you won't be surprised by it. I hope.