Sound vs. noise: Drawing the battle lines between loud and quiet, exuberant and aggressive

Sound is not just physical waves, but also the end point of that wave, with effects on the eardrum, nerves, brain, mind, psyche, household, neighbourhood, society

There’s a famously clever definition of “dirt,” usually credited to the British anthropologist Mary Douglas, as “matter out of place.”

It is clever because it does not blame dirt for being dirt. Stuff is only dirt insofar as it annoys somebody, or otherwise violates their sense of order. This is not quite to say that dirt is in the eye of the beholder, just that, without a beholder in an ordered environment, there is no dirt, only stuff. George Carlin made a similar point in his stand-up comedy bit where other people’s stuff is “s—,” but your s— is “stuff.”

Noise is like that too.

“Noise is unwanted sound,” says Marcia Jenneth Epstein, a University of Calgary expert on sound as an ecological concern, and author of a new book on noise as a human bother.

“It’s something that’s irritating, or obscures the flow of information,” she says. Noise can be different for different people, and does not have to irritate everyone, as in the use of classical music to repel loitering teenagers, a strategy pioneered in British Columbia 7-Eleven parking lots.

Sound can go both ways. She uses the example of the South African vuvuzela, the horn that brought “sonic warfare” to the 2010 World Cup, and which depending on the listener’s preference, is either “music or noise, exuberance or aggression.”

“A few vuvuzelas in a crowd can be amusing and motivating; several thousand at a time represented a clear and present danger to auditory health,” she writes in Sound and Noise: A Listener’s Guide to Everyday Life, soon to be published by McGill Queen’s University Press.

Epstein is an acoustic ecologist, and her book is an effort to change public perception about the importance of auditory awareness as a matter of public and personal health.

So she wrote this book as a guide to everyday life, taking a broad anthropological perspective about how human “soundscapes” have changed over recorded and even evolutionary history, and to what effect.

But then the pandemic upended every soundscape in the world.

“Sound makes us aware of larger worlds than the ones we can see. So do silences,” she wrote in a preface dated May, 2020, when the first lockdowns were in wide effect.

A virus had quieted the world. New noises caught the attention. Birds started chirping less loudly, with less competition

“Ambient sound level readings taken in major cities show night-time levels during the day,” she wrote in May, citing field work from March in British Columbia by the composer Hildegard Westerkamp. “Reports come in, as well, about the calls of urban birds being less loud than usual as they adjust to a quieter environment, no longer straining to be heard above human soundscapes.”

At the extreme ends of urban noise pathologies are things like the Windsor Hum and otherbothersomemysteriousnoises. Epstein is even working towards creating a “network of hums” around the world, working with acoustic engineers to help people diagnose where unwanted industrial noises might be coming from, as some University of Calgary students did for homeowners offended by an asphalt plant.

Compared to history, people today are uniquely placed to control their soundscapes. We may not have natural earlids, but now we have all manner of earphones and earplugs, with digital control over ambient noise, and access to endless varieties of discussion, music, white noise.

“We are in a better time than we were say, 20 or 30 years ago, partly because the internet has made a lot of soundscapes possible to listen to when you’re not living in the place where they are happening,” Epstein said.

She tells a “speculative history” of soundscapes of the past, from hunter gatherer societies in overgrown temperate climates or windswept arid climates, to the early rhythms of farming sounds and domesticated animals, the “patter and clash” of ancient cities.

“The density of urban life gives rise to early forms of noise annoyance: market wagons with metal-rimmed wheels rumbling along stone-paved roads, residences crowded close enough to echo and amplify sounds from the streets, groups of late-night revellers singing and quarrelling their way home,” she writes.

Compared to history, people today are uniquely placed to control their soundscapes. Photo by Getty Images

This novel perspective on noise has given rise to a curious sort of controversy in the academic context, with clear “battle lines,” as she puts it, between loud and quiet, and which should be encouraged.

On the one side is acoustic ecology, which aims to protect natural soundscapes from the noises of industry and advertising, and generally condemns noise as a violation of an “essential right to quiet even in urban communities.”

On the other is sound studies, which takes a more sociological view, regarding noise “as a beneficial stimulant for social interaction among diverse urban subcultures,” and silence as a “chilling of activity.”

“We need familiarity in the soundscape,” Epstein said. “But the same thing all day every day is not opening any portals in the imagination. It’s important to keep some portals open so something unfamiliar can come in.”

What is an acoustic ecologist to do in such a time? As usual, the answer was mostly to listen.

Her focus changed as a result. Originally she was focused on noise as a public health issue, not only for the threat of hearing loss, but also for the less obvious effects of sleep disturbance, chronic stress conditions, depression or anxiety.

But she came to see this as too narrow, ignoring what sound does to make people more sensitive to beauty, as well as hazard.

So the book is also partly a philosophical reflection on the good life, how sound fits into it, and what we can or should do about that.

The point was never simply to study sound, but to investigate its place in the world of human affairs, to acknowledge sound’s “dual identity as acoustic wave in the realm of physics and auditory sensation in the realm of physiology.”

Sound is not just physical waves that propagate through a forest, as in the famous Zen example, when a falling tree disturbs the surrounding air. It is also the end point of that wave, and its local effects, should it ever reach a hearing person’s ears.

Those effects are measurable on the eardrum, nerves, brain, mind, psyche, household, neighbourhood, society.

Perils abound: fire alarm testing in the apartment building, the rattle of a loose water pipe behind the wall, construction outside, the dog, the neighbour’s dog, the kids, the neighbour’s kids, the oppressive silence of an empty house, the Zoom call in the other room.

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