Tag Archives: city noise levels

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Ambient Sound: the Presence We May Not Notice

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Here’s the thing about ambient sound: we tend to put it out of mind even when it is having its way with us.

There is always a scenic dimension to the various physical elements that limit or enhance our actions. The funny old aphorism that ‘everybody has to be someplace’ is a reminder that our lives must unfold in some particular space. Sonics are always a part of a scene, even if they are hardly noticed. Pure silence is almost never an option; even a “quiet” place is full of ambient sound that affects the qualities that shape any particular moment. For example, ambient sounds are what transform stilted film dialogue captured on a set into conversations that seem to be happening in real space. Like the visual cues of color and texture, aural cues define where we are: anywhere from a busy playground to a space deep in the woods. More than we might acknowledge, it is ambiance that defines a desert from a busy city street, a cathedral from a conference room, or a busy office from a bedroom.

I was reminded of the importance of ambiance several years ago, when I was working on a chapter about film sound design. Since mics can barely do more than capture dialogue, Foley artists and sound editors recreate sonics that were inadequately captured on location. They add the aural details that make a place real.

In crowded places like midtown Manhattan we often want to escape what has gone beyond ambience and become intense noise. The constant racket of the city is the number one complaint of its residents. And we know that heart rate, irritability and blood pressure rise in very noisy spaces. But I know from experience that some of those same folks transported to the quiet acres of rural forest may also find the stillness pretty creepy. Though not loud, small Eastern Screech Owls at night are dependable producers of the kinds of quiet cries we might expect from ghosts passing through the trees.

Here’s the thing about ambient sound: we tend to put it out of mind even while it is having its way with us, increasingly making us anxious, annoyed, impatient or—too infrequently—calmed. Our brains scan the information that we obtain from incidental sounds. And while our ears aren’t as sensitive as many other mammals, they are good enough to detect an oncoming car we still can’t see, or an air leak in a window that is supposedly sealed.

The films Blow Out (1981) and The Conversation (1974) are good explorations of how we rely on incidental sound to make sense of the world. Both show technicians using just ambient sound to solve crimes. More happily, Joni Mitchell subtly embeds one of her signature songs with the soothing ambience of summer crickets.

Sound anchors us to a scene. Experiencing a completely silent environment, as in an anechoic chamber, is unnatural and, for most, unpleasant. A quiet spot is one thing, but we are only too happy to be in the presence of enough sound to blot out the sounds of our own heartbeats.

Americans living near cities and traffic often live within what has become sewers of noise. Tokyo and Mumbai are also bad, but we have our own unique mix. Aircraft noise is often a constant presence. And American reliance on gas engines is even more prominent, with most towns falling short of reining in the constant din from sources ranging from souped up motorcycles and cars, to the horrible pollution of machines we use to manicure green spaces. A recording studio built in most towns must be built like a bank vault in order to keep all of that chaos at bay. One science writer has cleverly imagined that if noise pollution could be seen, its scale would produce a level of filth we would never tolerate.

But the basic point here is simpler. We need to give the tiny sensory organs behind our ears a break, and the chance to hear quieter ambient sounds. That was always a birthright of our species for millennia before the relatively recent mechanical and electrical ages.

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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.