Why the BBC might be right to turn down music on Wonders of the Universe

Please don’t throw rotten vegetables at me, but the backlash the BBC are facing – via complaints and on Facebook – has got me thinking. Perhaps the BBC have a point: maybe the soundtrack to Wonders of the Universe is too loud.

I am a soundtrack whore – I love a good loud soundtrack. Seriously. Do you know how loud I play the music from Sunshine!? The score of that film and many others (Inception, Moon, Star Wars, The Social Network, The Shawshank Redemption, Gladiator, Lord of the Rings, the James Bond movies, anything by Ennio Morricone or Danny Elfman…) are so important. A soundtrack creates ambience and evokes emotional responses. A case in point? John Murphy’s Adagio in D minor from Sunshine. And one of the brilliant things about Wonders is its ability to evoke that “Wow” response. I’m not complaining – not only is Professor Brian Cox probably single-handedly saving the future of physics, he might even be saving curiosity-driven research. Which is all good.

The BBC claim that they received 118 complaints from people saying that they could not hear Cox’s narration over the music. The BBC responded by remixing the rest of the series so that the music is quieter while Cox speaks. Brian Cox’s response to being questioned by Andrew Marr on Start the Week was that the BBC were too responsive to these complaints. He stated that:

“We can sometimes be too responsive to the minority of people that complain.”

He added: “It should be a cinematic experience – it’s a piece of film on television, not a lecture.”

And having read some of the complaints, they do come across as rather fuddy-duddy-ish (from the BBC):

One viewer complained to Points of View: “You don’t have to dumb everything down by pretending we’re all in a nightclub.”

Another wrote: “I am fully able to sort out the annoying cacophony of sounds to hear the narration but why on earth should I have to work so hard to do it?”

From the piece by AOL TV – also apparently a bunch of miserable old sods who don’t like TV trying to be modern, or this cool young upstart physicist with his haircut and lack of old-man beard:

The viewer complaints were endorsed by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. He’s Master of the Queen’s Music and is waging a campaign against the insidious creep of “muzak”.
Sir Peter said: “Viewers of this programme have not tuned in to listen to a musical performance. I find the whole thing dreadful. Why do serious scientists and programme-makers feel the need for such wallpaper? It really does come to something when even a science programme is being drowned out by muzak.

“We are being driven from even serious television programmes by this incessant need for background music. I remember having to turn off an otherwise fascinating David Attenborough wildlife programme because some muzak moron had decided it was a good idea to play background music to the animals’ antics. It just made the whole thing ridiculous.”

“In my day, we had no such need for music… or colour, or in fact, the universe. We didn’t need things like the Big Bang. When I was a lad.” I’m clearly paraphrasing here. But you know what, oh ye complainers of music: you are really not helping yourselves here.

Slightly better complaint:

On the BBC website, one viewer wrote: “Yet again a programme we have been looking forward to utterly ruined by music that drowns out the words. Why does the BBC think its viewers need to have every second filled with noise? We haven’t got the attention span of a gnat.”

The Royal National Institute for Deaf people have also weighed in and they were actually constructive:

“We welcome the BBC’s decision to lower the level of background music on the Wonders of the Universe, which will make this already dramatic and engaging programme more accessible and enjoyable for people with hearing loss. Background noise on news and factual programmes, in particular, is very challenging for hard of hearing viewers and reducing its impact will delight many people with hearing loss.”

This is actually a pretty important when you consider the following – hearing loss is the most common disability in the UK, the most common form is age-related hearing-loss:

A total of 41.7% of over 50 year-olds in the UK have some kind of hearing loss.

Of over 70 year-olds in the UK, a total of 71.1% have some kind of hearing loss.

These percentages include the full range, from mild hearing loss all the way up to profound deafness.

Stats courtesy of the RNID website.

Which means most of us will likely suffer from some sort of hearing loss. This is where I put my research hat on and my cards on the table: I work on the genetics of deafness. One of the things noticed by people with hearing loss is the inability to focus on someone talking in a room full of chatter – the so-called “Cocktail party effect”. In fact, the ability to discern one voice from background noise is how the RNID website and iPhone app hearing check test works. Normally, your brain is able to filter conversation from background, but the louder the background noise, the more difficult it is to hear the conversation. Our ears are sensitive to frequency (pitch) and sound intensity (volume), the amazing little cells in our ears are exquisitely sensitive to pitch, and so through the complex processing pathways within our brains, we can discern a speaker from the background music. That is until the background music is louder than the narrator. As we age, these sound sensitive cells gradually die, and we lose our ability to discriminate speech from the din.

To put it visually it looks like this:

The black line represents the background noise or music. In the box on the left-hand side, the background noise (depicted in black) is low and the green line (the narration) can be easily picked out. In the right-hand image, the background is noisier and the green line, the narration, isn’t as large and isn’t as distinct as in the first image.

Another example, below, is basically the same processing done by the brain, but in the visual system. In the left-hand image, the background is dark and the writing is bright – the equivalent of the background music being quiet and the narration being loud. In the right-hand box, the background is almost as bright as the writing in the box, so the writing is more difficult to read – this is similar to trying to listen to dialogue with a loud musical soundtrack in the background.

As we age, and, in most cases, our hearing deteriorates, it becomes more difficult to identify the dialog from the background. This can be a real problem. Considering the large number of people who develop some form of hearing loss, it’s probably no bad thing that the BBC has been looking into this. It’s all very well jumping on a “We want our background music back” bandwagon, but for those who are actually suffering because they are unable to hear the dialogue in Wonders there is nothing they can do during the programme. Simply turning up the TV volume increases the volume of the background noise too, and so the problem of not being able to hear the Professor Cox remains. This is not only an issue for Wonders; the BBC is looking into this for other TV shows as well.

However, I have re-watched the offending episode of Wonders and didn’t notice anything, but then I have no problems with my hearing. I spoke to my Dad (who is the first person to complain about the volume of the TV, he commented on his inability to hear what’s going on in The Sarah Jane Adventures) and he also had no problems with the show. So it passed the Papa-lemur-old-git test.

Did the BBC go too far? Possibly. Is Professor Brian Cox right to criticise the BBC for its actions? Probably. Is it just miserable old farts complaining about loud music? More than likely.

I’ll leave you with the comments of Danny Cohen, controller of BBC1, who wrote a very good response. One of the most interesting points was this:

“Reducing the music by just one point, four decibels, when the programme is finally mixed allowed many more people to understand what was being said without compromising the editorial vision.

This was particularly true for people who had any form of hearing loss.”

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