Sunday 29 June 2014

The Modern Soundtrack

I spend eight hours a day in an office in Dublin, three hours a day on the bus there and back, and an hour or so sipping coffee and talking with friends at lunch, and I just figured out how much of that time I spend without a radio blaring loudly in the background.

It’s zero. Virtually every public and corporate space I visit -- lift, office lobby, grocery store, doctor’s office or petrol station, every space -- has overhead speakers and a piped-in sound system, which has no reason to exist but seems to grow louder each year. Most places play the same songs over and over, but the choice of music is not the main issue. The problem is that most people I know have ceased to notice this background and talk over it --- again, more loudly each year.

When I ask if they could turn it off, most people look at me befuddled; they are unaware the noise exists. They are obviously not enjoying something they are unaware of, so you might ask why they play the speakers at all. Yet when I ask bus drivers and store managers to turn the noise off, or even down, they look offended.

My co-workers moved into a new office recently, and the first thing they did was to turn on the radio; I asked why, and one said, surprised, “Well – we need to have something on.” When the radio was off and he heard only the hum of computers, the click of keyboards, the whirr of printers, the chatter of co-workers and the distant murmur of cars and horses outside, he felt unnerved.

We live with a great deal of background noise – a city bus idles at 90 decibels, and as the decibel scale is logarithmic that level is 10 times louder than 80 decibels. Many people today, who grew up with rock concerts and background construction, can expect to lose their hearing at a much earlier age than earlier generations -- a 1997 study of the elderly found that hearing loss doubled in the 30 years between 1964 and 1994, and we are almost 20 years further on from that. The constant noise of speakers might be an attempt to drown out the increasingly loud background, but it stacks the mountain of cacophony ever higher.

Most of us can only choose to buy our own headphones and MP3 players, meaning that I and all my fellow bus passengers spend the hours locked in our private reveries. Everyone has their own musical tastes, of course, and at six in the morning most people do not feel the mood for conversation. The problem is that everyone around me feels compelled to isolate themselves inside headphones; even worse than everyone being forced to listen to the same electronic media, everyone is forced to listen to their own.

I do get to hear some of what others are listening to, though, as their music is turned up louder than their earpieces can contain. In what Atlantic magazine writer Brian Eha called “bleed-over, collateral aggravation from the personal consumer choices of others,” living in the presence of ubiquitous noise creates a kind of arms race between eardrums. We turn up the volume on our MP3 players or IPods to drown out the loud bus speakers or office radio, and then have to turn it up ever more loudly as everyone else does the same thing.

More than that, though, this ubiquitous noise brings a psychological toll. We all live in a kind of enforced solitude now, yet cannot enjoy the tranquillity that made solitude desirable. Eha cites studies by developmental psychologist Lorraine Maxwell, who found that excessive noise warps children’s attention and memory, and makes them withdraw from talking with peers. Yet she also found that, when they are accustomed to working with noise, they cannot work without it; the quality of their work deteriorates. Finally, she found that when children learn to passively accept “uncontrollable noise” in the background, they show a “learned helplessness” to changing the world around them.

No other society has ever performed this kind of giant experiment on themselves over generations, so no one has ever measured the long-term effects. I do know, though, that between the earphones, the MP3 player and the earplugs, a normal life is getting expensive.

Originally published in 2012.

“An Increasing Prevalence of Hearing Impairment and Associated Risk Factors over Three Decades of the Alameda County Study, by Margaret Wallhagen, PhD, RN, CS, William J. Strawbridge, PhD, Richard D. Cohen, MA, and George A. Kaplan, PhD, American Journal of Public Health, March 1997, Vol. 87, No. 3.
“The Effects of Noise on Pre-school Children’s Pre-Reading Skills,” by Lorraine Maxwell and Gary Evans, The Journal of Environmental Psychology (2000) 20, 91-97.
“The Sound of Solitude,” Brian Eha, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2012.


Anonymous said...

Yes. First article I've seen on the subject, and I have been battling the problem since the mid-80's.

I carry ear plugs in my purse, and insert them when going into any building where the noise offends me. If it is still loud, I go back to my car for ear cuffs to wear on top.

I used to feel like a wierdo, but not anymore. One day I was in the grocery store after having gone back to my car for the cuffs. As I was ambling around the end of an aisle, an oriental-looking fellow gave me a big smile and a high 5 from the other side of the store. He looked familiar, but I couldn't place him. Several days later I placed him - he's the conductor of our city's symphony orchestra, who didn't even know me So I am not a wierdo. I'm someone noticeably special. Thank you, Toshi.

Anubis Bard said...

You reminded me of a classic science fiction story, The Machine Stops. It was about people whose every need was taken care of by a vast machine infrastructure. There was a screaming silence that struck the narrator when the machine he'd always lived with - finally stopped. (E. M. Forster, 1909)

Unknown said...

Agreed. Whatever happened to listening to silence. Could it be that the blaring sounds keeps the brain from actually doing some original thinking.

Of my many hikes in the southwest US, several times I have seen people with ear buds on the trails. Some of those trails have rattlesnakes. No way they will hear the rattle.

More amazing to me is to see two people obviously hiking together and both have ear buds.

jpbenney said...

That’s a fascinating point!

In ultraconservative Australia, music is always played in the buses and shops which I frequent, but it’s always of the type that was once called “muzak” (which I as a boy thought was pronounced “mew-zark”) and thus it is not really offensive to anyone I know.

In the Enriched World, where many people are into very loud and aggressive bands preaching a message of radical individualism and radical egalitarianism, which involves a belief that one’s own rights are absolute regardless of whether they infringe others.

I have experience of the problems with the attitude that one has every right to do what they want, and it is easy to see hot tiring office and public life in the Enriched World must be if people are often subject to bands like Pantera or Public Enemy!

Brian Kaller said...

Anonymous, if it's difficult for me to listen to bad piped-in music, I can only imagine how it is for someone with a conductor's ear. :-)

Anubis, when we're that used to white noise, silence can be quite unnerving.

Lloyd, were they looking at their phones and texting each other? :-)

JP, you're right -- consciously or not, it's a way of enforcing a radical similarity on everyone's thoughts.

William said...

Great post, I certainly can relate to all of it. Have TVs infiltrated Irish public spaces as they have here in the US? Just in the last two years especially, there has been an explosion in the number of TVs in public places.

In reading about Buddhist meditation as it was originally practiced, it seems that the aim was to hone the senses, to become hyper-aware by momentarily focusing on every sensation or sound, really listening, then learning to set them aside (along with wandering or repetitive thoughts)--while retaining a sense of their presense--and return to quietness in the mind.

It seems the need of people now the opposite--to dull one's senses, to block out the world, to tune out instead of tuning in.

Brian Kaller said...


I am rarely in the USA and can't really compare, but I have seen televisions creep alarmingly into Irish life; I suspect it is that, rather than greater prosperity, that is causing the demise of traditional culture here. It gets very difficult to explain to people that you want to work with no television in the background, and why.

That's an interesting point about dulling one's senses. It's also telling that we are so unhappy with the world that we need to block it out.

David Taylor said...

A relief to read these words, Brian! Welcome to my world.

Unnecessary noise dominates these days: from people leaving engines running while they’re double-parked - to multiple screens in pubs or banks - to bigger and bigger farm machinery running during unsocial hours - through to road ‘improvements’ which promote higher speeds and boy racers - through to atrocious quality street loudspeakers forcing noise of all kinds on shoppers at Christmas (I’m in Ennis, by the way).

I find I don’t have any music or radio playing at home practically all of the time - I’m “full”!

Keep up the good work.

Brian Kaller said...


You're not far from me, and we see a lot of the same changes. It gets to be a relief to have some quiet at home, about the only place one can anymore.

My daughter and I saw some boy racers the other day, as they were squealing their tires and revving their engines, and she asked, "Daddy, when does that get fun?"