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October 28, 2013

This weekend, someone complained the library was too loud. You won’t believe it, but the last noise complaint two weeks ago was that the library was too quiet. Classical music was suggested.

The ideal soundscape does not exist. Thirty years ago, I entered the Boundary Waters wilderness in late September as a man left cutting his trip short. It’s too quiet, he said—fleeing what we sought.

Contentment with noise depends on one’s neural and psychological make-up, acculturation, mood, hearing acuity. But, what is noise? One proposal: noise is sound that is out of place. “It is usually something unwanted, inappropriate, interfering, distracting, irritating.”

This from the book “Noise: a human history of sound and listening,” a companion book to a BBC radio series, which I have not heard, or heard of. But it sounds like a perfect series for radio.

While our world is noisy in many ways, we are better off than we might have been. The Saturday Review in 1925 noted, “The pitch of modern life was raised beyond endurance or repair.”

In 1927, psychologists measured the speed and accuracy of typists in both quiet and noisy environments. The best typists worked 7% faster in quiet; under noisy conditions, they used 19% more energy, mostly from tightening stomach muscles. Perhaps noise equals Pilates.

Soon thereafter, New York City established a Noise Abatement Commission (Try this: Things were so bad in cities, absolutely, any effort helped. But the experience of noise is also relative.

I’m enjoying a lovely peace as I write this at a friend’s house, but it wasn’t always this way. For five days, L has been housesitting, and when the house was quiet, a background hum became invasively loud.

It seemed impossible to locate, or ignore, and I was about to start flipping breakers when L said, “I don’t even know what some of these things are… like that,” and she pointed to a small light at an ignored outlet.

I unplugged it. Silence. I felt ten pounds lighter. The thing was a “Pest Chaser”—presumably to irritate mice, although in a house with two cats and two dogs.

Such ambient noise is as pernicious as amplified music. Our world is full of them. But think of the nightmare of many third-world cities where each loudspeaker outshouts the next. It may be naive, but I’ve always felt the straw that broke the camel’s back in the 1985 Philadelphia MOVE bombing was noise—the non-stop, amplified, in-your-face music and religious pronouncements from MOVE.

Culture matters. In Oaxaca, Mexico, after struggling to sleep despite barking dogs, we were awakened early each morning by the truck selling potable water, the driver calling “gua” over his loudspeaker, or by the school behind us blaring music at rock-concert levels—things shrugged off by the community.

Actually, I grew fond of the “gua” man. Many human sounds are welcome. I love the sound of the farmers market in Alpine Park and the sound of a cafe, at least when the music is low, preferably off altogether.

As the book “Noise” discusses, at certain levels the hubbub of a cafe can be helpful for creativity. Absolute silence is rarely enjoyed. The Buddha’s instructions included sitting under a tree in the forest, which is rarely silent. And if it is, one might pay close attention.

Historically, we have fled noise rather than dealt with the source, but the last hundred years have proved the options for doing so are dwindling. And the value of silence is climbing, becoming—along with darkness—a privilege of the wealthy.

The Dutch used a phrase in their ‘70s noise-reduction campaign: “Let’s be gentle with each other.”


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