Tag Archives: ambient noise

The Fragility of Intentional Sound

We pass our days in a constant circus of external noise.  And we are often not even fully conscious of it’s effects.

Sound produced by a person is as fragile as a feather.  As a slight disturbance of air pressure it exists only in the moment, decaying almost instantly.  And at normal levels it is often no match for the environmental noise we accept as the price of living in hives of activity.  Humans produce sound as speech over a frequency range of roughly 100 to 5000 cycles per second.  That’s a fairly narrow range in comparison to what the ear is capable of sensing.  Moreover, the relative volume of our speech is modest. We need to be in a modest-sized room and in good voice to generate sufficient loudness to be easily heard, somewhere in the neighborhood of perhaps 60 decibels (db).  But this measure of sound pressure increases logarithmically, so that continuous exposure to noise above 95 db is sufficiently risky to be recognized as a workplace hazard by OSHA.

Our ability to be the primary source of another’s attention is easily swamped   by a passing ambulance with its siren on (about 110 db), the shrieks of a child on a bus or a railway coach (95 db), or even the nearly constant drone of background music or others talking in the same general area (perhaps 40 db).

Most of the background sound in our lives is this kind of noise. Unless we are in the unlikely space of a anechoic chamber that is built as a lab to exclude most sound (and where the only sound heard would be our own heart pumping), we pass our days in a constant circus of external noise.  We are often not conscious of it.  Indeed, our brain is pretty good at tuning it out.  Awake quickly from a deep sleep, and you can actually hear the ambient noise of a room quickly being “turned on” by the brain.

But here’s the challenge.  We use our voices to do a lot of important work.  We need to be heard often and clearly. Sometimes our livelihood depends on it (as in teaching, face to face sales, conducting meetings and interviews, and so on.  At other times the din of constant noise destroys the chances for making an impression, or for a family to function as a family. The requirement to compete with other “convenience” devices in our lives—dishwashers, televisions, air conditioning, another’s constant chatter—can leave us exhausted.  Nothing is more fragile than the attention of another person.

The most common source of this fatigue is “white noise:” a collection of different frequencies thrown together in the environment.  White noise acts as a sponge soaking up whatever else is existing in the same space.  And because it does not necessarily seem loud to us, we overlook the fact that it is blocking our ability to connect with others.

The ambient sounds in your life will often be more subtle, but still disruptive of the ability to easily dominate another’s attention.  The major culprits: air handling systems in buildings, others talking at the same time, transportation traffic on the ground or in the air, even wind filtering around buildings and other natural objects.

While some sources of disruptive ambient noise can’t be stopped, a savvy communicator seeking the ideal environment for reaching others will do what they can to minimize it.  Shutting doors and windows can help. Turning off air conditioners is sometimes possible (and a common decision in location filming when the crew trying to record location sound realizes the problem).  It also makes sense to ask others in the same space to carry their conversations outside.

We use public address systems to increase the loudness of a voice.  But the better solution with a smaller group is to seek out a small room, or at least to arrange seating so that each person is just a few feet from others in the group.  Part of being successful as a communicator thus means also being at least an amateur acoustician.


Paying for the Quiet

We clearly thrive an aural stimulation.  But it’s doubtful we were meant to handle the high walls of noise that modern life throws up.

Loud and intrusive racket is a part of living in the 21st Century.  Many of us hardly give a second thought to the noise pollution around us:  restaurants with patrons drowning in the din, apartments a few feet from raucous traffic, sidewalks inches from the continuous roar of traffic.  Then there are also theaters and music venues that pitch amplification beyond the margins of what the inner ear can tolerate. If there should be an unexpected lull as we move from place to place, earbuds are at the ready to fill in the gaps.

On my campus a few of us battle teams of leaf blowers who spew their pollution and noise under classroom windows.  The campus looks quieter than it is.  But this inconvenience pales compared to a whole block on the West Side of Manhattan that is apparently in need of tranquilizers. Apparently one of its uber-rich among them is noisily digging a 36-foot hole for a mammoth swimming pool and theater to go under their $100 million dollar townhouse.  According to the New York Times, one neighbor found solace in a quote attributed to Schopenhauer: “The higher your tolerance for noise, the lower your intelligence.”  We may think we thrive an aural stimulation.  But it’s doubtful we were meant to handle the high walls of noise that modern life throws in front of us.

Of course quiet is not an absolute value.  I know plenty of sane people who function with some degree of auditory tumult.  But  I’m always amazed at seemingly oblivious patrons in public establishments, where the sound is barely less than what can be found next to a runway at O’hare. The phrase “I can’t hear myself think” is more than a figure of speech. Thankfully, many still regard any space that can foster a whisper as an island of sanity.

It follows that there is a price to be paid if a person prefers a buffer from the noise of ordinary life.  Prized residential property in most vertical cities almost always exists in the upper floors of a residential building.  A high view in an apartment complex is in several ways “above it all.”  Aside from a better view, these homes are acoustically more isolated.  Sound dissipates as it travels up and away from the reflective surfaces of the street. Rents thus rise dramatically to reflect that height advantage. They are typically even higher if residential spaces are built with double or triple-glazed windows. Vacant spaces between the glass are devoid of air, the prime medium for the transmission of sound.

Deep in the woods in many parts of the United States city dwellers are shocked to hear their heartbeat.

The ultimate escape from noise, of course, is out of the city and away from busy roads and airplane glide paths.  In a secluded forest in many parts of the United States it is possible to hear your heart pump: a phenomenon that can catch a city-dweller off-guard. It is even quieter after a few inches of snow.

I only realized how quiet living in deep woods could be until September 11, 2002.  Airspace in the United States shutdown for days after the disastrous attacks in New York and Washington, with a resulting atmospheric stillness rarely known to those of us who live under the air highways feeding the nation’s airports.

In the meantime, we buy quiet that we can “see” in the bucolic images of landscape paintings and photographs.  I suspect that seeking the silence of an open space is an unsung function of a lot of landscape painting. Alternately, we may set aside time for activities like meditation, prayer or yoga.  All are meant to happen in calmer surroundings.  With regard to meditation, it seems that we now pay to learn practices that happened to previous generations naturally. A farmer taking a break in a corner of his field would be puzzled if asked by a passerby question if he was meditating.  Functionally, however, the peace that is possible in the middle of a field gives his brain the same kind of break.