Low level background music and sound in hospitality: safe management
This guidance is effective from Saturday 12 December 2020.
On 14 August 2020, statutory guidance for the hospitality sector was introduced in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the statutory guidance is was necessary to request, as a precautionary measure, that there should be no background sound in hospitality premises, including music and audio from televisions.
Following introduction of this measure an expert advisory group was established to look at how low level background sound might be managed in a COVID safe manner that did not interfere with speech intelligibility or cause increased vocal effort.
The advisory group, comprising independent and industry acoustic experts, government and environmental health officials, and trade representatives, developed guidance on how this can be achieved. This guidance should be used by all hospitality premises to ensure they have in place the necessary arrangements for the safe management of low level background sound.
In addition, for operators in Level 2 areas it is possible to offer some limited live background music as long as this is not in the form of focused entertainment. See section in this guidance on how to manage live background music in hospitality.
Risk assessment and method statement
The purpose of this guidance is to prevent raised voices and or people leaning-in to be heard as a consequence of interference from background sound in hospitality premises. It also sets out a risk assessment and practical advice appropriate to all hospitality settings. Following this guidance will reduce the need for any incidences of compliance issues or the need for dispute resolution.
A qualitative approach should be adopted i.e. based on observation of what volume levels are safe for each premises, rather than a quantitative approach i.e. a blanket decibel ceiling. This takes account of the varied environmental conditions in different premises. As every hospitality premises is different a set limit would not produce a consistent result across all premises.
This method has been prepared to avoid any requirement for specialist measurement equipment. Following the level setting exercise described below, hospitality venue operators should, if requested, be able to clearly demonstrate to regulatory authorities the method followed and measures in place.
Key aims are to:
- ensure all customers do not need to significantly raise voices to communicate with other customers or staff (comfortable speech level; not shouting)
- ensure all customers and staff maintain appropriate physical distancing requirements while communicating with each other. All other mitigating measures for hospitality remain
Background audio level setting exercise – method and what you should do as an operator
You should complete this background audio level setting exercise outside of opening hours or as part of set up/sound test for any live background music.. A group of at least two volunteers is required to undertake the exercise. These can be staff members.
- Seat volunteers at a table closest to sources of amplified sound (e.g. loudspeaker or television)
- Volunteers should be seated at least 1m apart from each other to reflect current physical distancing requirements in hospitality for customers from different households
- Face coverings can be removed when seated and physically distanced
- Ensure that the ventilation and other operating arrangements reflect opening hours conditions
- Switch on pre-recorded music of a genre typical to the venue/other audio at a low level (or for live music play instrument/s)
- Pre-agree a topic of conversation and ask the volunteers to converse in a normal speaking voice – once you have familiarised yourself with the audio equipment this should take no longer than approx. 10 minutes - ensure you have ready access to volume controls
- Gradually increase the volume, ensuring that the volunteers can still converse comfortably without significantly raising their vocal effort (comfortable speech level; not shouting), or leaning in closer to hear or be heard. If they cannot, then the music / audio levels are too high and should be reduced. Remember that the audio should be subjectively low and remain in the background
- Once set, leave audio levels set as they are and check compliance at tables in different parts of the venue and (for staff) speaking across the bar
- Make adjustments to the audio levels as required
- When complete, make a record of the audio settings. This could consist of an indication on the master volume control, photographs of audio settings, set of notes etc.
- Communicate audio levels, settings, and guidance to all staff (live musicians will note this for equipment)
Managing background audio levels during opening hours
- competing amplified audio sources in the same space should be avoided (e.g. if background music is on, then there should be no competing sound from TV and vice versa)
- ensure all staff are fully briefed on the importance of keeping music / other audio within pre-set acceptable levels and that they feel empowered to reduce audio levels if staff or customers perceive it to be too high
- ensure staff (and any musicians playing live background music) are fully briefed on the importance of resisting requests from customers to increase volume and that they feel empowered to say no and explain why this is not possible i.e. levels are pre-set in line with guidelines
- the best way to ensure that audio levels are appropriate is to listen and observe. It will be clear when audio levels are too high if customers are heard to be raising their voices or shouting, or seen to be leaning in towards each other to communicate
- for the purposes of this guidance, audio is only meant to be in the background to provide ambience and should not be a focus. Be prepared to make adjustments to the levels of background audio, if required, to reflect the changing environment (e.g. the number of people in the space and their ability to communicate)
- regular recalibration of background audio levels should be carried out to account for any changes in the environment (e.g. warmer weather with doors and windows open or colder weather with doors and windows closed etc.)
- introduce signage to inform customers to avoid raised voices, shouting and singing, and to let staff know if they think the background audio is too loud
- Staff training should cover spotting the early signs of raised voices and leaning-in so as to intervene at an early stage to advise customers of the need to refrain from that behaviour or to turn down the volume - see attached staff training factsheet
Training and customer information
- provision of the relevant training alongside clear and simple messaging is key to allowing staff and customers to each play their part in ensuring background sound is managed safely and sustainably in hospitality
- operators should ensure they make plans and time for completion of staff training on this specific issue
- the key points in the sections on method and management should form the basis of this training
- it will help if copies of this guidance is made available to staff at dedicated training sessions and that management, once having familiarised themselves with the key actions, supervise the training
- once complete, this training should be recorded for staff and operational records
- provision of clear customer information is also important
- this should also form part of staff training so that they are in possession of the relevant facts to help deal with questions and issues that may arise from customers - the additional information that accompanies this guidance will be helpful for this and should be made available to staff as part of their training
- an additional information resource from the Institute of Acoustics is available under the ‘supporting files’ section of this guidance
- any communications should be placed in prominent places within premises and where they can easily be brought to the attention of customers for their information – simple signage reminding customers of the need to refrain from raising voices, shouting or singing will help
A subjective test has the potential for disagreement between the hospitality venue operator and the regulatory authorities, although following the method statement set out above will minimise this risk.
Venue operators and regulators should take a collaborative, proportionate and pragmatic approach to resolving disputes, should they arise.
In the event of a dispute, the following protocol is recommended:
- where there are clear breaches of the key aims set out at the start of this document, the hospitality venue operator shall reduce audio levels to the satisfaction of the attending regulatory authority
- where there are no identifiable breaches of key aims and a dispute remains which cannot be immediately resolved, there should be a presumption in favour of hospitality venue operators reducing music or audio levels to the satisfaction of the attending regulatory authority. A dispute resolution meeting should be organised outside of opening hours as soon as possible thereafter
- unless strictly necessary, there shall be a presumption against the regulatory authority taking formal action at the time of the dispute. Time should be allowed to resolve the dispute in a balanced and pragmatic manner
- where appropriate, dispute resolution may include a background audio level setting exercise in conjunction with the regulatory authority. This should follow the same process as set out above to the satisfaction of all relevant parties
This section describes factors which may have an effect on the quality of customer communication. It is included to help improve conditions for customer communication, if required.
- consider distribution of amplified sound sources relative to seating areas and other areas where staff/customers will require to communicate. Try to create even, well-distributed audio levels throughout the venue and consider rearranging seating areas in hotspots where communication is difficult
- consider other sound sources which may affect the ability of customers to communicate (e.g. kitchen hatches, slot machines or other games areas, heating or cooling fans, open doors and windows etc.) and test the ability to communicate in these areas
- consider the reverberation (echo, or reflection of sound) throughout the venue. High reverberation may contribute to communication difficulties
- consider introducing additional soft furnishings or more technical acoustic products, such as sound absorbent panels
- consider quiet zones for hearing impaired customers or customers with other needs that prefer a quiet environment
How to tell if background sound is too loud
Using the above method provided will assist you with setting appropriate levels of background sound. Once you have set a level, ensure you try out having conversations at normal levels at tables in the venue before you open to customers (and any musicians playing live background music) to ensure you can comfortably hear and be heard. Once customers are in the venue, you should watch and listen to make sure that they are not raising their voices or leaning closer together to hear and be heard, which may indicate that the background sound is too loud.
Measuring sound levels
You do not need specialist equipment to measure sound levels. The method provided will guide you to setting background audio at an appropriate level. Remember you may have to adjust this once the venue is in use if you become aware that customers are raising their voices or leaning closer together to hear and be heard. Bear in mind that conversation is meant to be comfortable. Encourage feedback from staff and customers to ensure that levels are appropriate.
Managing background sound safely
You do not need any specialist knowledge to manage background sound safely, provided you follow the method provided to set background sound at an appropriate level. The background audio should not interfere with comfortable conversation, when customers are sitting at a table and observing the necessary physical distancing requirements. Ensure you listen and observe carefully, and encourage feedback from staff and customers.
Live background music
In line with the reopening of music venues, concert halls and theatres in Level 2 it will be possible for hospitality premises to have limited live background music in addition to the current arrangements that permit recorded or broadcast background sound in hospitality.
There are however some important parameters for premises to observe in order for this to be managed safely within current rules for hospitality and 1 metre physical distancing. Other live events and focused entertainment will take place in line with their own relevant guidance, which is subject to 2 metres physical distancing. Please refer to guidance for the performing arts and venues sector and events sector guidance for further information on focused live music/events entertainment.
Below are six key points of guidance for managing live background music in hospitality.
- live music in a hospitality premises must be for the purpose of ambience background effect only and not focused entertainment, such as live bands/gigs etc. These would fall under separate guidance noted above.
- live background music in hospitality must not be planned or marketed as an ‘event’. Events may not take place in general hospitality areas at this time, indoors or outdoors, that are currently operating for the serving of food and drink and are subject to a 1 metre physical distancing exemption.
- the playing of live music must not happen in a way that encourages customers to sing along or leave their seats and engage with the musician/s i.e. to make requests or dance
- sound management remains important to ensure that volume does not interfere with speech intelligibility or cause customers to lean in or raise their voices above normal levels to be heard. The
- sufficient space must be created for musicians and their equipment that is set well back from customers and away from thoroughfares, entrances and exits
- it is recommended at this time that live music in hospitality is limited to a non-vocal arrangement and minimal artists/players i.e. solo or 2 persons maximum, physically distanced. Typical instruments may include piano/keyboard, classical or electro-acoustic guitar, or other traditional/folk string or wind instrument. Where there is any vocal aspect to the arrangement additional mitigations are required, such as Perspex screen between musician and customers.
It is further recommended that in settings that are likely to become busy with lots of competing sounds from conversation etc. that they refrain from live background music at this time due to the likelihood of ‘drown-out’. It will not be possible for volumes to be increased above safe limits therefore the offering would be unsuitable in such settings.
Only sound systems, including jukeboxes, where the volume setting is under the control of management should be used. Self-selection devices like jukeboxes are subject to the usual protocols for enhanced hygiene between use. Strategic framework levels requirements for being seated must also be observed. It is for management to consider whether set volumes are sufficient to meet with customer expectations or satisfaction for a paid for service.
If customers ask for the volume to be turned up
Staff should advise customers that it is not possible to increase volumes – that the set volume in play is in line with guidelines and cannot be changed. This should be covered in staff training.
Discos, karaoke and other singing/dancing activities
Discos, silent discos, karaoke and other activities that require general singing or dancing are not permitted at this time.Only risk assessed low level background sound is dealt with in this guidance.
Live sport broadcasts on TV
You can turn the sound on for live sport broadcasts on TV, but it must be risk assessed in the same way as music and must be the only source of background sound in the same general space when on i.e. music must be turned off if the TV audio is on in the same area. It remains the case however that high profile sporting occasions should not be marketed as events in hospitality i.e. key football or rugby matches etc. Experience shows us that these are high risk environments that once commenced are difficult to break up without disorder so must be avoided in the first instance.
If customers start singing along to music or shouting in response to TV broadcasts of e.g. sport
Clear customer information is key to managing these situations. Premises should use communication resources throughout the premises to remind customers that singing and shouting is not permitted. Staff should be mindful of early signs of this developing and where this does occur should intervene quickly to give advice and remind customers of the required standards of behaviour. If it persists then background sound and or TV broadcasts should be turned off/halted. In the event of disorder call Police Scotland who will attend.
Customers with hearing impairments
You cannot have louder volume in premises, to accommodate customers with hearing impairments. Risk assessments should be carried out by those with no serious hearing impairments so as to ensure a standard acceptable level for background sound. Conversely, operators may wish to provide quiet areas in their premises so customers have a choice of whether to have background sound or not as part of their hospitality experience.
Background music and your premises licence
You should check your premises licence before allowing background music. The general permission for background music under this guidance is predicated on the premises licence allowing these activities to take place. Your premises licence must have permission for “recorded music” and, where showing sport on TV, “televised sport”. If your licence does not allow these activities this guidance does not apply to you and you will need to investigate varying your licence to seek permission from the licensing board.
Outdoor seating areas
This guidance does not prevent the use of low level background music in outdoor spaces but you may be prohibited from allowing this under the conditions of your premises or occasional licence. Many licensing boards will attach a condition which prevents music from being played in outdoor areas. If your licence does not have such a condition, then you could have low level background music for ambience in your outdoor area, but in doing so you must be mindful of other considerations such as amenity or impact this might have on local residents. If in doubt consult your local environmental health teams.
Central Enquiry Unit
Phone: 0300 244 4000
The Scottish Government
St Andrews House