Tag Archives: hearing loss

Giving Our Ears Their Due

Having spent the better part of the last two years writing about hearing and our sense of sound, here are a few takeaways about how we hear that may come as a surprise.

A key premise of The Sonic Imperative to be published in a few weeks is that sound is our newest sense. The widespread use of radio in the 1920s and magnetic tape recording a little later means that our modern comprehension of sound is only about 100 years old. Radio and recording made listening a prime preoccupation. Records added an additional level by making this, the most ephemeral of sense data, something that could be packaged and sold. Though streaming is the preferred way to access music today, for many of us it still matters to hold a copy of a performance in the form of a vinyl record or CD.

Here’s a few random but surprising facts about how we process sound.

  • People often say that they are “visual learners” or thinkers. We do learn from what we see. But sight is predicated on light, and we are not natural light emitters. But we were born to emit and receive sounds. It’s good to keep that in mind when we reflexively think of sight as the dominant sense. We surely need the advantages of seeing, but our basic social nature is predicated on hearing and learning spoken language.
  • Sound is created almost as much by the space it is in as by the source. Open spaces and rooms are major shapers of auditory content, with important effects. Even an expensive stereo system is going to sound crummy in a small room, or one with hard surfaces. In fact, a rooms designed to have no acoustic impact known as anechoic chambers would slowly drive most of us crazy in just a few hours.
  • A lot of music listeners have trained themselves to settle for inauthentic bass sound. They probably have listened for too long to bad audio that tends to create “one note bass.” This form of low frequency sound is a wad of noise that may be just “good enough” for a boom box or dance track. You can actually hear true bass when you can detect a distinct pitch and it’s overtones produced by a bass guitar, piano, or an organ pedal note. A low frequency bass note of 40 Hz, for example, is 28 feet long. A room shorter than that will force all of that high-energy sound to distort into indistinct one-note bass.
  • One way convenience stores disperse teens who want to hang out nearby is to employ a “Mosquito,” a proprietary “sonic canon” that emits a high-pitched sound that can only be heard by young ears. Some owners have also had success with baroque music.
  • Most Americans are careless in protecting their hearing. It is useful to remember that sound is created by zephyrs of moving air that can often only sensed by our ears. It is incredibly easy to overwhelm the tissue and tiny bones that receive those feint sound waves and send them to the nerves of the inner ear. You are probably ruining you hearing if you listen to music with tight earbuds, cutting the grass without ear protection, or using earplugs at a pop music concert. Results unfortunately include many musicians and subway workers who eventually end up legally deaf.
  • There are 1400 loudspeakers in Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, mostly because baseball requires a big audio assist to keep it exciting.
  • Listening is the one sense that never rests. Indeed, we are even listening to our mothers in the womb, starting in the third trimester at about 30 weeks.

Paperback, 335 Pages
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The Costs of the Din Add Up

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.