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Ambient public music: Some love it, and some leave it

Mears Park
Friends of Mears Park
At Mears Park, the idea behind the music is pretty simple. Music playing into public space, especially classical music, can be an effective deterrent to crime and drug use.

Twelve hours a day since 1994, Mozart has been playing from the speakers in the pergola bandstand in the middle of Mears Park. That’s 25 years of symphonies and concertos — which, if you do the math, is enough to listen to every recorded work that Wolfgang Amadeus ever wrote more than 540 times.

At Mears Park, the idea behind the music is pretty simple. Music playing into public space, especially classical music, can be an effective deterrent to crime and drug use. At least that’s the theory, and so far in Mears Park, it seems to be working.

“When the [remodeled] park opened in the early 1990s, we had problems with gangs and drugs,” explained John Mannillo, the long-time chair of a group called Friends of Mears Park. Mannillo and the Friends have been managing the placemaking and events for the downtown St. Paul park for decades.

“Drug and gangs — it became the new place for them to meet,” Mannillo explained. “So I had read about something in Canada, where if you put in classical music it would help our problem. So we did that, we put in muzak all day, from 9 a.m. to 9 at night, and it really kind of cleaned it up.”

Love it or hate it — and some people feel very strongly — ambient music in public spaces is a tool in the arsenal of urban design. If you walk through downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, especially during holiday season, you’ll be treated to a medley of outdoor music whether you like it or not.

Mood music

The theory behind music and its effect is not exactly hard science, but anyone who has ever designed a shopping mall or a coffee shop will tell you how important ambient music can be. Music sets a mood, creates a vibe, and can be an acoustic welcome mat for people to enjoy themselves in the city.

Or, if you prefer, it pollutes the atmosphere and inflicts ear worms on innocent passers-by.

“Noise pollution is real,” said Andrew Korsberg, who lives and works in St. Paul. “Broadcasting it on speakers in a public space is definitely a form of pollution. Live music is different, depending on the situation, however.”

Take, for example, the example of Hopcat, a 2-year-old beer bar on the busy corner of Nicollet Avenue and 5th Street, right in the heart of downtown Minneapolis. Outside the entrance, a set of speakers speakers plays ’80s rock out onto the patio and sidewalk, all year long. Some people like it, others don’t.

“The one I dislike is Hopcat ’cause they play theirs loud,” said Aaron Stephenson, a regular in downtown Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, others singled out the Hopcat patio as one of the better ones in downtown Minneapolis: “It’s a boomer soundtrack mostly: sometimes great, and sometimes ugh,” said Chris Steller, who regularly passes through downtown Minneapolis.

By contrast, Steller approves of the music coming out of Hubert’s in Target Center, where “the P.A. livens up a kind of grubby chute they send you through there.”

(For my money, I would predict that the Hopcat patio offers a nearly constant violation of the city’s noise ordinance: See below. This is a problem that becomes especially noticeable in the winter months when the patio is deserted.)

Noise ordinance explainer

Even if all taste is subjective, the legal issues are a different story. Minneapolis City Code has a noise ordinance on the books that limits the volume of outdoor music.

“Everything of what you hear downtown, the speakers don’t need a permit,” explained Jim Doten, a supervisor in the Minneapolis Health Department’s Environmental Services division, which has jurisdiction over outdoor Tom Petty.

Outdoor speakers are regulated under section 389.60 of the Minneapolis City Code, which covers noise like a winter blanket. Except during temporary special events, speakers are subject to the same noise regulations as any other property: They can be no louder than 10 decibels over ambient noise during the day, or 5 decibels at night.

“In a year we might get a couple requests,” explained Doten. “Most of it is complaint based; we’ll go on out and check it. We don’t announce a visit, we’ll find [the location] and take the measurements.

Due to lack of staffing, and the many other duties involved in being a city health inspector — the biggest one is the environmental regulation of construction sites — the Health Department does not devote a ton of time to enforcement of outdoor speaker volume.

But, if necessary, one of four inspectors will come out to the patio, stand in the nearest public space (e.g. the nearest sidewalk) and measure the sound using a sophisticated decibel meter. If it’s over the limit, the offending restaurant or bar receives a violation notice, and subsequent review.

“We’re trying to find the point of where [music] is not obtrusive in everyone’s lives,” said Doten. “Not everyone is going to be happy about the situation: businesses want to pump up the noise, and people are going to want it quiet. You get the extremes, but we’re trying to strike a balance.”

New Nicollet song and light show

Nicollet Mall received an audible change last year when the Downtown Council, the improvement district that manages the freshly remodeled Nicollet, installed speakers on the poles along one side of the street between 6th and 8th Streets, the central core of the transit mall.

The initial idea for the speakers was to have a light show along the “light walk,” the stretch of the street with mirrors and LEDs. During the holiday shopping season last year, the lights were timed with holiday music to create a five-minute synchronized show that played every half hour.

“We worked with a local lighting and sound engineer to create a holiday light show,  which we did last year. It ran from Thanksgiving through New Years,” explained Lisa Middag, the director of Nicollet Activation for the Downtown Council.

Since then, the speakers have been playing a real mix of songs along the two-block section during all but four hours of the day, 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.

Nicollet Mall
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Nicollet Mall received an audible change last year when the Downtown Council installed speakers on the poles along one side of the street between 6th and 8th Streets.
“We have access to a wide range of genres and we do make use of that — experiments with a cool quiet vibe in the morning, or more upbeat things,” explained Middag. “We like to play with it, different genres at different times. For example, there’s French bistro music during the farmers market.”

As with most music, whether you like public music on speakers or not depends on perspective. Some find the Nicollet music cloying and desperate; others really seem to like it.

The holiday light show will be returning beginning this Friday, though the show will be a bit shorter and the audio balance has been tweaked and equalized this year, to be less obtrusive. “[The music] is definitely not the same as a first-person performance experience, for sure, but it can be a pleasant thing,” said Middag.

The next time you’re walking around the sidewalks of downtown, pause for a minute or two, shut your eyes, and listen to what you hear. Most of the time, the sounds of a city street mix with people’s voices, the cawing of crows, the belch of a city bus, and the omnipresent sound of speeding cars. Sometimes though, if you’re in earshot of some ambient music, the sounds of the city will be inundated with Pharrell Williams.

Whether ambient music should be a part of this everyday mix is surely a matter of taste. Meanwhile, Mears Park will keep churning out its classical music, warding away the unwanted and providing placemaking ambiance in the city’s park.

“That’s always been very successful,” said John Mannillo, who has been programming the music in Mears Park for decades. “And we’ve been able every year to raise enough money to put in holiday lights. It’s probably, per capita, the most heavily used park in the city.”

Though, be warned: As the holiday lights go up into the trees again this week, the tunes will change from Mozart to Christmas songs. Ho, ho, ho, and whatnot.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 11/26/2019 - 10:20 am.

    I have a neurological disease, brought on by a virus, so lights, movements, noises and weather all affect me much more than most folks. It can be hellish and severely limits my life. Particularly regarding public events. My 2nd thought is: the poor wildlife. They never get a break. Or if they do it’s a tiny 4 hour window of peace and quiet in the middle of the night. Living beings NEED QUIET to think, rest, heal, rejuvenate. A quiet walk in nature is incredibly restorative for all. Remember that the next time any of you feel the urge to blast loud music. And remember state laws and city ordinances, which exist for good reasons.

  2. Submitted by Jack Lint on 11/26/2019 - 02:39 pm.

    They did try the classic music on Block E some years back. Made waiting for the bus on 7th and Hennepin much nicer.

    According to my tweet from the time, they were playing Halloween music on Nicollet Mall on November 16th this year. Halloween music in October may be festive, but by the middle of November when it’s dark at 5:00 pm, listening to Halloween music is not pleasant.

    Next complaint, could they program the lights with some warmer colors? I don’t need to see various shades of blue when its 18F and the wind is blowing along Nicollet.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/27/2019 - 09:18 am.

    Whatever. If you think Mozart actually reduced the crime in Mears Park call me, I’ve got at least a dozen equally effective ideas for sale.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/27/2019 - 04:47 pm.

      Someone told me that the public radio organ show “Pipe Dreams” was popular with a certain segment of gangbangers in East LA. They used it to show off the sound systems in their cars.

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/27/2019 - 09:19 am.

    I don’t mind ambient music if it’s not a deliberate attempt to force me to listen. Live music coming from a bar, sure, I don’t mind. Speakers blaring over an empty patio, or a sidewalk? No.

    Hopcat is, to my mind, a particularly egregious offender in this department.

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