Diffusing the Norm – Brian Eno’s Music For Airports

DOI: 10.5920/DivP.2019.03


Brian Eno’s Music For Airports presents to us the destruction the familiar, the removal of expectations. The album attempted to avoid the classification of Muzak and brought to us another world completely. Background music often adds a stimulus that has a polarising effect. It’s often assumed that, once forgotten, the music should merely exist as ambience ; the quality or character given to a sound recording by the space in which it occurs. The opposing effect is that it offers to us a dislocation or diffusion of the norm; in that it allows to be transported to a place where the mundane is bypassed and replaced by something that’s meditative and completive.

This paper attempts to address such issues while examining the albums role in establishing a forum for the use of ambient music in public spaces. It examines the role of the environment and what musical stimulus can provide within this space.

Diffusing the Norm – Brian Eno’s Music For Airports

1.  Bracketed Space

It’s hard to conceive of a space, so bound with rules and regulation, that is, in essence, transitory.  Often, these spaces, what seem like part public spheres, are owned and managed either by government and private firms – each implying its own objectivity and onus of the control and regulation of space – in terms of security, atmosphere, ambience and experience. In The Politics of Public Space, Setha Low and Neil Smith define the difference between both public and private space:

Public space is traditionally differentiated from private space in terms of the rules of access, the source and nature of control over entry to a space, individual and collective behaviour sanctioned in specific spaces and rules of use. (Low & Smith, 2006)

An airport is a grounded way-stations, the most terminally transitional place known to us: between everywhere and nowhere. It’s is a place made up of on-the-ways, not-there-yets, of missed-connections. The airport is a place made up of no-places – removed and diffused yet familiar. Christopher Schaberg’s The Textual Life of Airports explores the texts of these structures, structures whose architecture revels the stories of spaces. Shaberg goes on to see that:

Airports not only became increasingly inhabited cultural nodes; they also became places that one could experience and evoke out of context as a distinct type of bracketed space. (Schaberg, 2011)

It’s hard to imagine the airport as a cultural entity. They have cultural histories, through architecture and technological advancement, from their origins in the muddy fields of outer suburbia to modern logistical wonders. As an entity, it has changed our sense of time, distance and ultimately the way cities are built and how business is done. Sonically, its an environment filled with tonalities: drones from passing aircraft, the symphonic squeels from passengers. Its no surprise that Eno considered the ‘sonic’ regulation of such a place, perhaps to put the airport into a place that could be forever contextialized.

As the experience of flying becomes more mundane, its no surprise its has become so tedious. Music, by its very nature, is transitory and this, coupled with the airport, allows for this ‘bracketed space’ to exist; a place where music can perhaps stand motionless in an overly exaggerated environment.

2. Hard Architecture

In a world dominated by architecture, our perceptions of its functionality can differ. Architecture can be viewed as ergonomic, tangible, functional, brutalist. During the 1960s, a new mode of thought began to develop toward our experience and interactivity with architecture, termed Environmental Psychology. It discusses the relationship of people within their physical settings. Studies in this area involve the evaluation and interaction of people’s behaviour and perceptions toward spatial configurations. In Tight Spaces : Hard Architecture and How to Humanize It, Robert Sommer relates environmental psychology to building design, advocating more flexible spatial configurations and what he termed ‘humanized places’. Sommer argues that alienating environments produce subtle but psychological effects in all of us. He touches on this further In Personal Space – The Behavioural Basis of Design, discussing how much an environment or any environment of that matter, effects humans activities:

‘[Man] will adapt to hydrocarbons in the air, detergents in the water, crime in the streets, and crowded recreational areas. Good design becomes a meaningless tautology if we consider that man will be reshaped to fit whatever environment he creates. The long-range question is not so much what sort of environment we want, but what sort of man we want’. (Sommer, 1969)

Adaptation is all around us. It’s an accepted part of life.  Animals use it to evolve within their environments. It’s further related to ‘habitat’ – a natural home or a person’s preferred environment. Both these terms are key in understanding how we, as humans, spatially invade a space. The conditions of any space can allow us to warm to it, or to reject it. Both adaptation and habitat are important considerations that perhaps helped build towards a conceptual model used in Music for Airports, conditions perhaps were central towards Eno’s modus operandi.  

3. Situation

An improvised musical piece or phrase is transitory – once it’s created, it vanishes, leaving only a fleeting sonic image within short-term acoustic memory. These memories swarm in and out of sync, allowing a listener to build auditory events, that can often be based on a listener’s interaction with their surroundings. Within these surroundings and its conditions; through the ambience, light, design, and layout of any given environment, we can judge its character and atmosphere. Light is fundamental to this process – how a space is illuminated, be it natural or unnatural. We can define atmosphere in a number of different ways: air, mood, feeling, tone, character. An airport can and will distort these processes through its transitory nature.

Technology and engineering help define an airports boundaries as an environment. Marshall McLuhan clarified this further in Understanding Media – The Extension of Man, prescribing that:

Any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment. Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes. (McLuhan, 1964)

This ‘active process’ allows us to engage and adapt to new sets of social and environmental conditions. The airport is within these conditions; the advent of an engineering wonder and perhaps we had no way of dealing or coping with such staggering development (the introduction of the jet age in the 1950s). Similarly, Eno helped recast similar levels of engagement of a musical fashion and presented them in a new light – where sense of location and env
ironment could become, through music, less mundane and more transcendental as an everyday human experience.  

4. Passage

Background music can have a polarising effect. It’s often assumed that, once forgotten, background music should merely exist as ambience – the quality or character given to a sound recording by the space in which it occurs. The opposing effect is that it offers to us a dislocation or diffusion of the norm; it allows to be transported to a place where the mundane is bypassed and replaced by something that’s meditative  – this is key to Eno’s framework and this paper. Music for Airports present to us the destruction the familiar, the removal of expected.

Music for Airports levels of success are debatable; indeed its installation at the Marine Air Terminal at New York’s La Guardia airport in the 1980s had some staff members complain about its playback, so much so that it provided more of an annoyance than an complimentary sonic aid. Workers are, indeed, not transitory commuters. Their sense of place is real, fixed, more than the temporary traveller. In an interview from Harpers & Queen Magazine, Eno elaborated further on not only the sounds he heard in airports, but also commented on the mechanisms replaying them:  

I’m such a nervous flyer. I found that the kind of music they do use actually makes you more nervous. I mean, the sound systems are so bad, and the music is so worthless you begin to think, well if this is the standard of the music, what must the airplanes be like. (Kucinskas & Davidson, 2013)

In any environment, our surroundings condition us; inform us how to operate, help us understand our habitat. For Eno, it was within this conditioning, in the Cologne-Bonn Airport during 1977, that the album’s concept developed toward a concrete idea. Inspired by its decadent use of space and its graceful architecture, Eno pondered on the idea of a complimentary auditory accompaniment.

Architecture utilizes diffusion – of light, sense of place. It also helps diffuse time. This process of diffusion is created through the aesthetics of architectural design and its ergonomics. These conditions exist in both music and architecture. The relationship between music and architecture has long been played out; St. Augustine called them sisters – children of the number.

What’s interesting more so are their mutual influences – related to a ‘constructive common denominator – the use of numbers, proportions and symmetry (Kucinskas & Davidson, 2013). All of this is evident – but perhaps it’s the dialogue, one that has been going on for centuries and this common theme of diffusion that allows the album to become so engaging as a work.

5. Interlude and Interruptions

Time lag is loosely defined as a period of time between one event and another. On playback, the pieces on Music for Airports are almost frozen. It’s as if the actual sonic events happen, then you slowly begin to notice them. Eno, dictated Music for Airports sense of pace and movement in the studio, and when he played the pieces at half speed on a 24-track tape recorder, he discovered that the instruments sounded much softer and diffused, thus allowing the movement to become slower. This helped create its sense of diffusion, its ambience – slowly tempered music in an environment where speed and movement (getting to check in gates) is innate. Part of the album’s process was that the tones were composed and decided on in such as way as to not interfere with the line of human communication, sonically, that is. The tones (in terms of frequency content) are both with high and low frequency registers, allowing for human speech (approximate ranges being of 100hz-8kHz) to fit somewhere in between.

This loosed sense of space extends further with some airports now adopting a ‘silent airport’ approach – limiting and or restricting the levels of noise pollution, asking the passenger to become more aware of his/her surroundings to take more responsibility of their movements. It seems that this ‘diffusion’ has now reached toward the decisions we have to make – the illusion of control and command is slowly, perhaps, slipping away. As the airport becomes less polluted with noise, perhaps the two (music and light) can co-exist – diffusing the sound of early morning light, cutting in sharp angles by wings and tails of planes, seeping through large windows to awaken a traveler asleep in a chair, on a long layover after a red-eye or to those, simply passing through.

6. Soundscapes over Landscapes

A tone, phrase or motif, initially made to be small and discrete, can be re-imagined into totally new space within the studio. One final consideration, within the realm of ‘diffusion’, is how Eno used the recording studio as a compositional tool. This has been written about extensively but what’s key is this is the use of echo and reverb. Through these tools, a composer can cast sounds into an imagined dimension, creating new sonic locations. This, in effect, allowed the musical phrases in Music for Airports to disconnect from reality and create a virtual space.

Eno discussed this further in Mark Prendergast’s, The Ambient Century when discussing film soundtracks, in that they help us reimagine worlds, referring to them as:

Music made to support something else, an evocation of psychological space within which something is intended to happen, a sense of music, which presented a climate but left out the action. It (film soundtracks) was like constructing geography and not populating it. The listener, I felt, became the population of a sonic landscape and was free to wander around it. (Prendergast, 2000)

Much like the way in which the inherent design of architecture can help light detach and reflect, it’s a natural reverberation much like sound reverberation.  This helps it move away from association. This creation of an ‘imaginary sonic landscape’ helps create mystery and to some extent, a sense of doubt. Flying, by its vary nature, is a calculated risk, be it a very safe one. Anthony Giddens went further into this theme in Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, writing that, ‘radical doubt filters into most aspects of day-to-day life. Living in a secular risk culture is inherently unsettling’. (Giddens, 1991) Part of the Music for Airports power is its creation of a sense of doubt, an apprehension as to where the music may lead and indeed, what lies ahead in the skies above.

7. End Note

Today we are now further detached from our environment, at times, unable to gain a sense of place. This, as media scholar Paul Roquet discusses, has provided us with ‘ambivalent calm’, proposing a form of provisional comfort that nonetheless registers the presence of external threats’. (Roquet, 2016) This access, in an instant to all of the recorded music in the world can transport to anywhere. The question is to where and an under what conditions.  

This paper has attempted to examine the multidimensional theme of ‘diffusion’. It has examined th
e role of the airport as a geographical structure, cast as an environment we know well but yet is constricted through rule and conditions. Music for Airports helped diffuse our expectations of the norm – our sense location and our surrounding environment, normally conditioned by the ways in which we use a space, could now be reimagined, slowed down, letting us reimaging time. Ultimately, rather than a sense of resolution, Music for Airports provides to us, musically, a diffused irresolution – an ambivalence that’s perhaps central to the albums inner aesthetics, adrift and sitting between here and nowhere.


Giddens, A. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.

Kucinskas, D. & Davidson, S. (ed) Music and Technologies. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scolars Press, 2013.

Low, S. & Swith, N. The Politics of Public Space, London: Routledge, 2006.

McLuhan, M. Understanding Media – The Extension of Man, Boston: MIT Press, 1964.

Prendergast, M. The Ambient Century, London: Bloomsbury Press, 2000.

Roquet, P. Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of the Self, Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2016.

Schaberg, C. The Textual Life of Airports, London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Sommer, R. Personal Space – The Behavioural Basis of Design, New York: Spectrum Books, 1969.

About the Author:

Composer and Producer Neil O Connor has been involved in multimedia, experimental, electronic and electro-acoustic music for the past 20 years and has toured extensively in Ireland, Europe, Australia, Asia and the US. His research background focuses popular music studies and his practice revolves around compositional and performances practices with modular synthesizers.