We’ve turned the ‘soundtrack of our lives’ into one long visit to the land of auditory commotion.
As readers of this blog will know, sound is a current preoccupation. I’m not sure if its a curse or blessing, but once a writer starts down the path of a new project, its hard to stop. Everything is seen through the lens of the work.
A new book on the noise in our lives by David Owen (Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World) is a timely reminder of how much racket we tolerate. The modern frenetic existence isn’t just a function of being busy. It’s also an effect of living full time in a din of disruptive noise. We turned the soundtrack of our lives into one long visit to the land of auditory commotion. It’s the kind of effect you expect entering a busy pre-school or sharing the street with a group of motorcyclists out for a Sunday ride. The areas surrounding busy airports are especially hazardous to one’s ears and mental health. Huge amounts of fuel are thrown into a jet engine that compresses and then explodes it. Even the ostensibly quiet ones are noise demons. It’s din easily passes the 85 db threshold that can cause permanent ear damage over just a few hours. And the pummeling of the air by helicopter blades overhead is even more brutal: the rough equivalent of watering orchids with a fire hose. As Owen notes, virtually all of us arrive at adulthood having done some irreparable damage to our hearing.
Below the obvious case of airports, what are the sources of ambient noise that most of us experience on a daily basis? The list is long: hair dryers, leaf blowers, snow blowers, tree cutters, high aircraft on approach to a distant airport, helicopter traffic, heaters, refrigerators, microwave ovens, mixers, radios and televisions that are often left on to become aural wallpaper, auto and motorcycle mufflers—some tuned to be loud, vacuums, car alarms, emergency vehicles, general traffic, internal combustion engines, truck pick-ups and deliveries, copying machines, nearby construction equipment, exhaust fans, truck ‘engine braking,’ Muzak, cooling fans, microwave ovens, video games, bars and restaurants, live concerts and sporting events, domestic pumps, clothes and dish washers, lawn mowers and garden equipment, elevators, subway and truck brakes, the impossible-to-block long waves from a bass speaker, nearby foot traffic, portable generators, barking dogs, phone rings, cooling systems for server centers and industrial plants, garages for auto repairs and more.
Of course we don’t confront these sources at once. But a good guess is that a city resident will experience most of this noise in the short time frame of a few days. And some of this noise pollution—traffic, appliances, planes, lawn equipment—is ubiquitous. Their sounds almost never go away. That is, until we are old. Then, creeping deafness and tinnitus leave the marks. Deafness is one of the great and mostly undiagnosed causes of depression and withdrawal in older Americans.
You can audit your own environment with a simple test. Turn off the master switch in the electrical panel where you live. You’ve eliminated most of your own noise sources at that point. But how much still seeps in from your neighbors and the proximate environment? I live in the country on a one-lane road surrounded by woods. By all accounts the noise level in my home should be below 20 db. But 30 db is about as low as the sound levels go: a function of distant air traffic, a noisy fan in a cable controller box that can’t be turned off, the noise of a heater, and a new “quiet” refrigerator in a distant room that carries the sound of its motor vibrations through the wood structure of the building. 100 years ago, that 20 db mark would have been easier to achieve.