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Rants on Noise

by Peter Donnelly

Music: The New Addiction

Reprinted from the Victoria Times-Colonist, February 2, 1996

The last time my son and I went skating at a local arena, the hard rock music was so loud that in order to talk to one another we had to put mouth to ear. When I finally asked one of the attendants if the music could be turned down, he looked at me with a puzzled expression and said: “What music?”

I am not making this up.

Music has become such a pervasive part of our lives that most people don’t even notice it. It’s no longer there to be enjoyed; it’s there to feed an addiction.

Have you seen a hockey game lately? Every pause in the action is filled with recorded music. Even the moment of final victory, with the Stanley Cup held high, is underlined by the pounding rhythms of rock and roll, as if the cheers of the hometown fans weren’t enough to define the moment. Baseball too—once the game of silences—is being punctuated by pop tunes between every batter, sometimes between every pitch.

When was the last time you were in a restaurant, a pub, a mall, a retail store, a health club, or a swimming pool and were allowed to enjoy the ambient sounds of the place, or quiet conversation with a companion, or the music of your own thoughts, without the clamor of a radio station in the background?

They’re starting to feed it to passersby as well. These days it seems that part of the standard equipment for a new shop or restaurant is a set of speakers mounted above the front door, broadcasting the entertainment onto the sidewalk. I suppose it’s seen as a sort of public service.

The fact is that music—usually loud and often tuneless—has become an inescapable presence in virtually every place of public assembly. The assumption seems to be that people can’t enjoy themselves without some kind of acoustical stimulation. For many people, unfortunately, that just might be true. But for those who prefer quiet, or just normal people sounds, the world has become a hostile place.

No matter where you go on earth, it is now virtually impossible to find the kind of stillness that was commonplace a century or two ago. Much of this noise, it’s true, is a byproduct of the machine age, but a great deal of it is deliberately created for consumption. It has become a drug, and our society is hooked on it.

As with some other drugs, the more you get, the more you need. The volume is increasing all the time. “Big screen, big sound!” advertises a chain of movie theatres. “Play it loud!” urges a maker of video game hardware. Boom cars proliferate. Nightclubs are so loud that staff have to wear earplugs. Outdoor concerts can be heard miles away.

Why is it happening? In the past, loud noises and music were for special occasions. They gave us a “kick.” Now we want every moment to be special. Like the drug addict, we want to be high all the time. And like the addict, we no longer really enjoy the stimulus, but without it we feel an intolerable emptiness.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe firmly that people have the right to consume what they want. I’m not down on anybody for using tobacco. But I don’t want to inhale their smoke. And I don’t want to listen to other people’s music. If I complain I’m told: "Most people like it." Well, most people like coffee, and I happen to be addicted to it, but I don’t force it down anyone’s throat.

If you walked down the street slapping the head of every person you met, you’d quickly be arrested and put somewhere where you couldn’t do harm. Yet you can do the same thing in a boom car and get away with it. What’s the difference?

Society has long recognized the right of the individual to be free from assault. More recently, we’ve acknowledged the right to clean air. Isn’t it time we also recognized the right to quiet?


For Now, the Issue Is Awareness

September 1996

This past Labour Day weekend my family and I travelled to a rustic resort on one of the Gulf Islands—let’s call it Paradise Island. The resort is on a lovely piece of waterfront property right next to a public day-use park. Apart from the inevitable drone of airplanes and boats, it’s a wonderfully quiet place. So I was surprised when the peace of Sunday afternoon was shattered by a very loud, persistent engine from somewhere in the park.

Curious and more than a little annoyed, I investigated, found a generator set up in the open, followed the power cord, and found—a coffee urn. Yes, some of the good people of Paradise Island, staging a community picnic, had decided that their right to hot coffee overrode the right of the dozens of people nearby to enjoy a quiet afternoon on the beach.

This incident seems emblematic of what we are up against in the struggle against noise pollution. The Paradise Islanders presumably have chosen to live on that lovely isle to escape some of the nuisances the rest of us have to put up with every day; yet the consciousness of at least some of them does not embrace the Right to Quiet.

Sadly, sometimes even the environmental movement seems indifferent to noise pollution. This spring we saw another Earth Day marked by overamplified speeches and music that intruded on the lives of people (and nesting birds) over many city blocks. In the evening I attended an Earth Day dance at a night club where, to signal its support for a healthy environment, the management had taken the unprecedented step of banning tobacco-smoking on the premises. Yet when the band was playing I measured 110 dB of sound at the edge of the dance floor—enough, according to the Workers’ Compensation Board, to risk permanent hearing damage after two minutes.

In the campaign for quiet, our lines are still being pushed back. Every year the noise gets worse. Leaf blowers are now used year-round as substitutes for brooms. Traffic continues to increase by land, sea, and sky. More and more radios and TV sets are nattering away at us in public places ranging from shoe stores to corporate cafeterias. We live in the most overstimulated society in history, and as the effect of each individual stimulus weakens, we are bombarded with more and louder messages wherever we go.

What can we do? Each one of us has to stand up for the Right to Quiet. The opportunities are many. Ask store clerks to turn off the music or TV, and walk out if they don’t. Contact your municipal councillors, MLA, and MP, and let them know your feelings about what jet skis, unmuffled motorcycles, and midnight sirens are doing to our quality of life. Write letters. Make phone calls. And if it does seem that the lines are not advancing yet, remember the non-smokers’ rights movement, which started out as a tiny group of activists and within a decade or two brought about a mass change in consciousness.

We are in stage one of the Right to Quiet movement: raising awareness. We have to invalidate the excuses that we’ve all heard: “No one has ever complained before.” “Most people like it.” “If you don’t like noise, you shouldn’t be living where you are.” If change is to come about, it will not happen just through the work of our executive. All of us, as individuals, have to make our voices heard through the din.


Cosmic Bowling, the White Flash, and the Death of Tranquillity

March 1997

In one twelve-hour period recently I got two pieces of news that depressed me.

One was the discovery that Victoria’s last remaining quiet pub, the Snug at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, had abandoned its longstanding no-music policy.

The other was a newspaper article about the introduction of “cosmic bowling” to local alleys. This new phenomenon, hailed as the salvation of a declining pastime, features flashing lights and pounding rock music designed to appeal to the under-40 crowd.

Why do I find these events so disturbing? Apart from their small but significant effect on my own life, it’s because they are symptoms of the appalling extent to which our society has become hooked on visual and acoustic stimulation.

I have enjoyed going bowling occasionally with family and friends. It is, or was, a simple pleasure. The rumbling of the balls on the hardwood, the crash of pins, the cheers and groans of the players—these were sounds enough for me. Similarly the Snug was a haven where people-watching, the crackling of the fire, and above all stimulating talk with friends was entertainment enough.

But I am a dinosaur, it seems. While I quietly ruminate in my swamp, humanity is rapidly being pushed along an evolutionary path—perhaps devolutionary would be the better word—that makes me feel like a relic of another age. The species is turning to a diet of artificial stimuli, and my habitat is rapidly disappearing.

Have you seen much television lately? Have you noticed the phenomenon of the White Flash? If you haven’t, I invite you to watch for a half-hour and count the number of times the screen dissolves in a flashbulb effect, amidst the frantic succession of images that now make up not only the commercials but even most of the programming. Look also for the flaming explosion that inevitably takes place somewhere in movie trailers. Turn on a children’s cartoon, close your eyes, and listen to the onslaught of violent sound effects that accompanies every scene. And in those annoying commercials with the lurching camera, count the number of people walking quickly across the foreground—shadowy figures like tigers in the grass, whose only dramatic function is to signal danger to the brain and keep you on the alert.

Thirty or forty years ago, television was called “the vast wasteland” because of its lack of intellectual content. But the TV of 1997 makes the programs of those days seem like the work of Plato and Shakespeare on a good day. Content has been almost entirely driven out by sensory stimulation: stroboscopic lights, jarring sound effects, images that remain for no more than a fraction of a second. Laugh tracks tell us when to feel amused, and non-stop music—marring even the otherwise fine documentary work of people like Ken Burns—tells us that we should be feeling something, even if the producers are not sure what. Television no longer even aims at the lowest common denominator of the intellect; it has abandoned the cerebrum entirely and turned to the more primitive parts of the brain.

The really scary thing about this is what it is doing to young people. When even “good” children’s programming like Bill Nye the Science Guy and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego relies on ear-pounding and eye-dazzling effects to keep the viewer’s attention, young people can’t be blamed for thinking that book-learning is a drag. When every television drama, documentary, and interview is accompanied by non-stop music, they get the message that words and ideas and emotions have insufficient meaning by themselves—that their impact must be augmented with a programmed response. When indeed almost every experience in life is accompanied by music, television, or the roar of an internal combustion engine, they come to fear quiet as an unwelcome emptiness. Subject to a constant diet of stimulation, they are learning to equate tranquillity with boredom.

Apart from its effect on the individual spirit, what can the death of silence and tranquillity mean for the well-being of our society? Can the social fabric remain whole when all of us are too wrapped up in our “personal stereos” to converse with a stranger, or even with a friend? Or when we have altogether stopped being doers in favour of “being entertained”? Or when many among us are so numbed by external stimuli that we have forgotten—or never learned—how to feel?

Perhaps I’m being too bleak. Maybe I should stop watching television altogether, and go down to the Snug for an (almost) quiet drink. Oops, I forgot: now they’ve got a television up on the wall too. The last time I was there, they were showing professional wrestling.


Acoustic Responsibility: A Concept Whose Time Has Come

August 1997

Imagine that every time someone on your street mowed the grass, or every time an airplane passed overhead, your yard was filled with a nauseating smell. Suppose this same odor seeped into your bedroom at 3 a.m. when a motorcycle went by, and again at 6 when a building contractor started dropping bundles of rebar on the street. Suppose, indeed, that this stink was around you for 24 hours a day, sometimes stronger, sometimes not so strong, but always there, making your life unpleasant, destroying your ability to experience pleasant aromas, and perhaps even making you ill.

Would our society tolerate activities that really did generate such an odor? Of course not. Yet we show an amazing tolerance for a form of pollution that is every bit as disturbing and harmful: noise.

Attention has recently been focused on the problem of seaplanes taking off and landing in Victoria Harbour, to the acute discomfort of nearby householders. But even if some mitigation is found for that problem, it will be like taking a bucket of water out of the Red River in flood. Airplane traffic is increasing by five percent a year. Urban noise is doubling every eight to ten years. By air, land, and sea we are facing an onslaught of noise that threatens to make our world unlivable.

As a society we have chosen to make a tradeoff. We’ve been willing to tolerate a certain amount of noise for the sake of having what we see as benefits: things like motorized travel, labor-saving machines, and amplified sound at community events. We have essentially granted ourselves the right to make noise. But along with rights, as is so often said, come responsibilities. Have we developed a sense of acoustic responsibility in our society?

The evidence suggests that we have not. Surveys among high-school students show that the majority believe they have an unlimited right to make noise. Boom cars and chopper motorcycles indicate that this attitude prevails among many adults as well. Jet skis and other loud watercraft have turned our lakes, formerly pleasant refuges, into places of misery for anyone who doesn’t want to join in the mechanized fun. Stereos with superamplified bass are turning houses with common walls into torture chambers—to such an extent that Britain has had to pass a law precisely to protect tenants in council housing from the nighttime music of their neighbors.

The examples can be multiplied endlessly. Scheduled aircraft flying in and out of the Harbor may be seen as a necessary evil—but what about the unnecessary evils of banner-towing aircraft, or sightseers flying in low circles over the city at midnight, or the scheduled flights between the Harbour and Vancouver that fly directly over the city many times a day, affecting tens of thousands of people, in order to spare a dozen passengers the expense of a detour over the water? I would suggest that all these abuses exist only because we have not yet developed the awareness that we are responsible for the noise we produce.

It’s widely accepted that we have responsibility for our garbage. Drop a candy wrapper on the ground and you are potentially liable to a stiff fine. But haul out your gas-powered leafblower to clean a little dust off the driveway, while spreading acoustic garbage over a square mile or more, and you are applauded for keeping your home tidy and presentable. Isn’t there something wrong with our values here?

Noise is garbage, and it is a particularly insidious form of garbage. It destroys community life, pursues us into our homes, keeps us from sleeping, and is a cause of many stress-related illnesses as well as hearing loss.

The current destruction of silence in our world is an environmental catastrophe. Yet even the environmental movement seems oblivious to it, as evidenced by the huge speakers erected at Earth Day celebrations across Canada, putting out music and speeches at literally deafening volumes. Why? Because the organizers of these events—along with the people responsible for similar abuses in night clubs and at concerts of all kinds—do not recognize that with the power granted by those huge sound systems comes the responsibility to use them in a safe and courteous manner.

The soundscape, our acoustic environment, has been described as a “commons”—something that belongs to all of us. Everyone has the right to use it, but no one has the right to abuse it. Let’s start using it responsibly.