A simple yet powerful illustration of the things I want to explore with this blog is provided by music – or, more specifically, the music volume. The DJ or bar owner has a very effective tool at his disposal that can be used to influence how people behave in the disco: turning up the volume.
At the quiet end of the spectrum, there is soft background music. Conversations seem to flow easier when there is music in the background. It fills out conversational pauses that could otherwise have been awkward. It filters out the conversation of bystanders and creates a more private space where others cannot overhear what you talk about. And it provides a common subject that you can talk about with the people around you: “Cool song – isn’t that San Germain?” Also, it apparently makes people feel more at ease – notice how many airlines play soft music at take-off and landings (presumably to drown out the noise of the wings falling off). Similarly, among managers of department stores, it is a well-known fact that shoppers stay longer (and buy more) if the store is filled with pleasant music.
This is all part of creating a specific atmosphere, a fact which may seem self-evidently simple. But consider what other bars do: They turn up the volume significantly higher. At some noise level – I don’t know the exact decibel limit – it has a more specific and observable result: It becomes impossible to carry on a conversation in a large group. Turn it up even more, and three-people conversations become difficult as well. As the DJ turns up the music, he in effect determines how people interact in the bar.
At some noise level, even two-person conversations present significant challenges. To hear each other, you need to put your mouth right next to the ear of your conversation partner, maybe even cupping your hand and shouting to get the message across. I have been in discotheques where the music level was so loud that not even this was possible. In some types of discos, the more house- and techno-oriented ones, the combination of physical proximity and conversational isolation seems to be the main attraction.
It is a good question whether there is a conscious calculation behind the loud music volume, and if so, what the reasoning behind it is. Maybe bar owners have found that guests drink more the less they talk. Or maybe the forced proximity is appreciated by the guests who then have a tangible excuse to get in close physical contact with the opposite sex – an objective which may be the ultimate goal of any human activity. (My guess would be that you come back to the bars in which you tend to get lucky). Or maybe, it is something which is mostly determined by either chance or old habits, or according to the whims of whatever DJ is spinning that day.
Of course, there is the related question of the genre of the music. The type of music seems to be a driving factor when it comes to the patrons’ selection of which bar to go to. (Also, Heavy Metal somehow doesn’t come across in the right way when played at a barely audible level). I’ll come back to this in a future post.