Credit: Ruta Celma via Unsplash

Silencing music in pubs: killing the atmosphere or preventing the risk?

By Rothery Sullivan

Covid-19 has obviously affected many events and, for young people, it’s been particularly socially unkind; unable to go to clubs with friends, experience freshers’ events, host birthday parties, attend proms, or even go to gigs. Consequently, in July, when pubs reopened in Scotland, it seemed as though social outings were, slowly, on their way back to normal. Personally, I felt a wave of relief. The idea that I was able to enjoy nights out again with friends, even with the safety precautions that pubs require, such as social distancing, track and trace, and wearing masks was a welcome one. However, as of 14 August, a new restriction was introduced: restaurants and pubs should no longer play background music or television sound at all. I initially wasn’t too fussed. Yet after going to a bar for the first time since the rule was imposed, I realised that this background music adds an essential quality to the atmosphere of a Scottish pub. The lack of music was obvious the moment I set foot in the bar, as the previously rowdy, bustling noise was replaced with waves of awkward silences; the clinking of empty glasses being collected; and the occasional distinct details of other people’s conversations. As I was trying to talk with friends I kept losing focus as I overheard these other conversations, and when our table fell inevitably, temporarily, quiet the silence became profoundly awkward as there was no other noise to fill it. The entire pub ambiance has changed and, rightly so, people are discouraged from going out. After all, what’s the pub without the atmosphere?

The purpose of removing background music from pubs is to prevent customers from leaning in closer to one another to hear conversations or from drunken yelling and singing, which would only increase the amount of bodily fluids sprayed onto surfaces and increase risk of infection. While this is all well and logical, the elimination of all background music, as opposed to keeping the volume low, is not only ruining the experience for customers but is potentially harming the music industry, as new music is silenced from potential listeners. Many people are introduced to new music through clubs and concerts and, with the absence of these events, pubs become one of the only places left to enjoy new music. Of course, songs have been banned from public spaces in the past, often due to outrageous content or political meaning, but a ban on all music in all pubs has never been enforced before in the UK; large fines and closure are the risks if breached. Music in public settings undoubtedly ushers in a sense of community, like when everyone stops their conversations to sing along to drunken classic Sweet Caroline, and the conversation-fuel it can bring when a song plays that your friends all love or hate. People enjoy music in pubs for the same reason they enjoy listening to music in the car; it takes pressure off of conversations, allows your thoughts to meander when the discussion lulls and everyone in the space participates in the listening experience together. 

Having louder background noise in pubs may increase the risk of getting the virus. However, the act of going to an indoor public space, consuming food and drink, and meeting up with friends in a confined area without masks in itself carries a lot of risk. Perhaps if the virus is not contained enough to safely have pubs open, this is an indication that pubs should not be open at all, as the reduction of background sound is obviously not enough to make pubs entirely safe. 

However, I’m aware that there is no perfect solution to this problem, as businesses are financially reliant on staying open and, equally, people are eager to go out. I’m sure most people would agree that they would rather go to pubs without music as opposed to not being able to go to pubs at all. While establishments could lower the number of people allowed inside in order to support social distancing and decrease transmission risk, many businesses would not be able to make a large enough profit if they lost any more customers as they are still trying to recover from the lockdown from March to July. With the “rule of six” forbidding restaurants and pubs from making reservations for more than six people, it’s essential that establishments do everything they can to remain open, even if it means silencing the music that makes the pub experience exciting and enjoyable. Music is not a necessity, but it undeniably adds a lively and magical energy to nights out that will be missed until the virus is under control. Perhaps, for now, we could turn it down a little and enjoy the music loudly when life becomes semi-normal again.


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