Noise has become a universal environmental problem which we haven’t a clue how to tackle. Enter the streets of any major city in the world and you will be swept along by continuing noises. But do we truly need to be exposed to such uncontrolled electronic noise levels?
- Have you ever gone into a restaurant where the noise was so disturbing that you wanted to get out?
- Have you entered an underground train where the noise was so powerful you wished you had earplugs?
- Have you experienced such pandemonium at a party that you went to the bathroom just to escape?
None of these were questions which would have been posed in the 19th century. The truth is that noise can be “a stench in the ear” as the wit Ambrose Bierce described back in 1906.
Until the industrial revolution, noise had seldom been regarded as a social threat. As long as noise was a natural phenomenon people were not offended: the sound of horse-drawn carriages or the rolling of beer barrels was not noxious. The ringing of bells was welcome. Everything changed with the introduction of trains, cars, airplanes and the various electrically driven machines ranging from telephones to television. Noise became intrusive as well as a threat to our well being.
In today’s world we have almost forgotten the pleasures of calm, quiet and silence. These states of being have become harder and harder to come by. Peace and quiet have come to be regarded as luxuries enjoyed by those living on secluded islands or in gated and walled compounds. Given such a state of affairs, a number of social scientists think peace and quiet should become a human right.
In recent decades American and European restaurants are being overwhelmed by high decibels of background noise. Such cacophony becomes a social killer, keeping talk and discussions down to a minimum. I often ask a waiter or manager to please lower the volume, but the result is usually unnoticeable.
The top complaint of diners in the US is noise. The typical restaurant “background noise” is around 65 decibels . Customers begin to raise their voices at 70 db and conversation becomes difficult at 75 db.1 I would recommend restaurants with a “Three-star Quiet Award” (unknown until now) but a few reviewers have begun to warn readers of the noise levels along with the ups and downs of the cuisine. “Quiet Restaurants” would be a good beginning. Silence on trains has also been introduced in some trains (“quiet carriages”) but without much appreciation.
It would be good to make “all the right noises “ but noise is composed of many unwanted sounds. The foundation of this problem is that in modern times unwelcome noise has spread widely, loudly and endlessly. The noises made by automobiles and airplanes generally disturb us the most. Purportedly road traffic is not defined as a noise nuisance. The courts have declared it as “subjective” because there are varying decibel levels that people can withstand. Screeching automobile brakes are horrid and arresting. Screeching infants can be highly distracting but are somehow acceptable. So one must conclude that machine noises are alien and natural noises are almost acceptable.
The World Health Organization reports that irritation with noise has led 8 million people in Europe to place traffic noise claims with their local authorities. This leads us to ask why noise levels aren’t set in law? New York was the first city in the US to enact a noise code, but unlike air pollution or water pollution, noise does not leave any traces in the environment. There are some local laws regarding noisy neighbors who defy an acceptable decibels level, but residents should have stricter statutory legal rights.
In the UK neither the Noise Act of 1996 nor the Anti-Social Behavior Act of 2014 have brought much peace and quiet. Shrill noises can trigger the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. Annually half a million people who suffer from noise nuisances make complaints to their local councils. I know from friends in London how maddening the constant flights from Heathrow airport can be. The noise is so intrusive that it has become a raging political issue. The eardrums of close to a million Londoners are affected by the roar of jet engines.
Regrettably, noise has spread everywhere. While the rich pay for quiet, the poor have to bear the noises surrounding them. Escaping to calmer public places in the city is challenging. Antonella Radicchi , a Berlin soundscape scientist, has created an app called “Hush City” so people can find places which are quiet in their settings. She has expanded her app so that city dwellers in the US, the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain may enjoy the more secluded spots of our congested cities.
Little has been designed by builders, architects or developers who had noise in mind. Noise absorbing pavements and soundproof building materials are rare. The extent to which inhabitants in Europe and North America go to escape into their own protected sound worlds is impressive. All those who travel and walk about with earbuds, or more massive noise cancelling headphones, do so not only to listen to music but also to cut out noise.
I have written this blog because I would like to encourage more concerted efforts towards a quieter world and not a mechanically and ever more obtrusively noisy planet.
In noisy technoville
Cars are screeching while radios, TV and loudspeakers
are merely shrill;
Saws, blenders and washing machines are
Humming and buzzing wih skill
Alas, the ringing of bells becomes rarer and rarer.
In noisy technoville
Phones are ringing, jackhammer workers drilling
while speakers are screaming, Siri is merely being
*Yet one of the least noted of human clicks
Are those rare misadventures of dentures creaking.
*With thanks to the immortal writings of Willard R. Espy, Words at Play (1975)
1Richard Goodwin, “Why noise is killing us,” The Guardian, July 3, 2018