A Point of View: The tyranny of unwelcome noise

Don't Honk sign in New York (photo courtesy Peter J Bellis/Flickr)

Honking horns. Household appliances that beep. Other people's music. Should we turn down the volume, or get better at concentrating in a noisy world, asks historian Lisa Jardine.

I had an MRI scan this week, which set me thinking about unwelcome noise.

There was plenty of opportunity to do so, as anyone who has had such a scan will know. Lying supine in a claustrophobic opaque tunnel, with instructions not to move a muscle, everything is driven out of one's mind by the insistent, repetitive, loud banging and cyclical shrill throbbing sounds produced by the machine's electromagnetic coil.

Doctors put patient through MRI scanner A scan involves loud clunks, whirs and droning

"The scanner is noisy," the instructions the NHS sends you with your appointment notification warn.

"So you will be given 'ear defenders' to protect your ears from the noise. You can listen to the radio through the headphones or bring a CD."

Believe me, nothing short of heavy metal could drown out the scanner din, so I prefer not to add my own amplified racket.

Mind you, I like to think of myself as someone with sufficient powers of concentration to tolerate intrusive noise.

At home my father set the example. He had grown up in an overcrowded household without the luxury of private space in which to think.

So although by the time I was a child he had his own book-lined study, he in fact always worked at the dining room table, paying no attention to the rest of the family's comings and goings.

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Lisa Jardine
  • A Point of View is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays, 08:50 GMT
  • Lisa Jardine is Centenary Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London

When I was a university tutor in the 1980s, I noticed that young people raised as I had been had a distinct advantage when it came to concentrating under pressure of examinations.

Students who had been shielded from noise in boarding school houses during homework and study periods tended only to be able to work comfortably if there was perfect silence. A pneumatic drill in the street outside the exam room would be enough to reduce some candidates to tears.

Less advantaged students seemed to have learned to focus on the task in hand regardless of what was going on around them.

Thirty years later, though, mechanical noise is now more pervasively intrusive in the domestic setting, in what are supposed to be helpful ways.

I refer, of course, to the tyranny of the household appliance with an audible alert:

  • my oven beeps to tell me it is has reached the desired heat
  • an electronic probe beeps to tell me my joint of meat has reached the required internal temperature
  • my washing machine beeps to tell me the selected cycle has finished
  • the tumble dryer beeps to tell me drying time is over

Each of these high-pitched sounds is factory-programmed to run for a good 60 seconds, forcing me to stop whatever else I am doing in exasperation to press "off".

Outside the home, in that cherished modern space, the privacy of one's own car, I am subject to unasked for acoustic assaults too. Mine is what one of my friends calls a "bossy car". It beeps if:

  • I come too close to another car
  • a pedestrian or cyclist comes nearer than they should to my wing mirrors
  • I reverse
  • if the petrol level is low

I know I should be grateful, but each one sets my nerves jangling.

And yet, returning from a weekend excursion to France, I was happy last Sunday to play Verdi's La Traviata fortissimo all the way from Dover to London.

So perhaps it's not a question of the noise level, but its nature. The difference between insistently repetitive sounds - a growing feature of the modern urban environment - and the varied, melodic audio material we choose for ourselves.

The French intellectual Jacques Attali, in his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, maintains that, even if the sounds are attractive, it is the monotony of repetition - introduced with mechanical musical reproduction - that takes the pleasure out of listening.

Start Quote

Each night at 10.30pm, radio stations asked listeners to turn down their loudspeakers as an act of good manners”

End Quote Noise etiquette in 1930s New York

Historically it does seem to have been the case that those who became increasingly preoccupied with noise levels and noise abatement focused their indignation on the new means of mechanical reproduction of sound, rather than more traditional sources of noise.

From the late 19th Century onward, increasing attention was paid in public debate to the problem of noise in an urban environment.

Those writing about it describe the sounds of the new mechanical age, from the scream of the locomotives to the shrilling of gramophones to the roaring of automobiles, as most disagreeable and disturbing.

As hostility to the intrusion of other people's noise into neighbourhoods grew, two waves of noise abatement campaigns swept western Europe and North America - the first between 1906 and 1914, the second between 1929 and 1938. Making noise came to be characterised as uncivilised, anti-intellectual and disruptive - a sign of loose living and lack of self-control.

Anti-noise campaigns therefore focused attention on a public programme geared towards a "noise etiquette" as the solution to restoring city calm.

In addition to practical measures, like a ban on the use of the car horn at night, the solution to noise abatement was seen as public education.

In New York, for instance, the Noise Abatement Commission proudly claimed in its first report of 1930 that it had successfully asked the city's radio stations to help in a campaign to educate residents in considerate listening. Each night at 10.30pm, stations asked listeners to turn down their loudspeakers as an act of good manners.

Where attempts were made to legislate against noise pollution, local authorities also tended to focus on mechanically reproduced and amplified noise, recommending bans of what the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, for example, referred to as early as 1913 as "mechanical musical instruments".

Musical trio Overheard scales and arpeggios can be tiresome

It was proposed that these should include the use of loud gramophones near "homes, buildings, halls or structures, balconies and porches, as well as on vessels lying by or near public quays". So many people made "immoderate" use of the gramophone, the Rotterdam authorities claimed, that neighbours forced to listen for hours found the nuisance almost intolerable.

The proposal was, however, hotly contested by more liberal members of Rotterdam's city council. They argued that the gramophone was the musical instrument of the lower classes, and that an exclusive ban on gramophone-related noise would hurt them in particular and so was socially discriminatory.

If neighbours were expected to tolerate repetitive piano practising, or a singer's arpeggios, what justification could there be for imposing a specific embargo on gramophone music? In the end an ordinance was introduced which gave local government the power to interfere only where there was a proven noise nuisance.

In today's cities, as noise beyond our control has become ever-louder and more insistent, it has also become more difficult to deal with.

Sign in China banning use of car horns Cities around the world have tried to ban honking horns

Traffic and voices produce a just-tolerable, 24-hour background roar, punctuated by screaming sirens and faulty burglar alarms which residents struggle to factor out. Ultimately they may lodge an objection to a particular nuisance, only to find that the noise meters local councils bring in fail to capture the sheer hell of repetitive bass-booming dance music which goes on into the early hours.

And yet, I suspect it is not silence that we crave. In the modern world, silence is a condition so rare that it is likely to cause unease rather than bring solace.

Placard depicting Edward Munch "Scream" during protest against a new runway at Frankfurt airport All manner of noise is subject to complaints and protests

In our house there is a radio in every room. We turn on BBC Radio 4 as we move around the house. Speech radio keeps us company and is a soothing background to whatever we are doing.

Radio listeners, in my experience, use the radio to calm and distract. Sometimes they listen attentively, sometimes they simply enjoy the cadence of the human voice. Many years ago, when I used to present the late-night programme Nightwaves on Radio 3, my producer would remind me just as we went on air that many of my audience were trying to decide whether to go to sleep or perhaps embark upon something more intimate. If I wanted to keep them I had to captivate them and hold their attention.

Broadcasters are well aware that listeners these days are unlikely to be giving a programme their undivided attention. The head teacher of our local girls' school tells me she listens to my Points of View as she drives to Sunday morning church service. Only if she is gripped will she sit in the car park to wait for my conclusion.

In the modern world, the quality of our lives is improved and supported by all kinds of ingenious technologies. I do not, of course, resent the MRI scanner's deafening din if it helps keep me in good health.

The world is going to go on getting noisier, and we may just have to develop our own, personal, self-protective strategies for dealing with it, like improving our powers of concentration.

Below is a selection of your comments

My kettle boils water and then quietly shuts itself off. My toaster toasts bread and then quietly shuts itself off. Why can I not buy a microwave oven that doesn't beep - couldn't we at least have the option of turning the beep off? I'm usually the first up and like to warm up something for breakfast, but the sound of air raid sirens in the kitchen is enough to rouse even the deepest sleeper. I prefer to eat something cold and enjoy the peace and quiet.

Sarah Daniel, Auckland, New Zealand

The car itself produces more noise pollution than any horn or bleep. The constant rumble has ruined the peaceful countryside.

Adrian Smith, Haywards Heath

There is plenty of scientific evidence that noise is seriously damaging to human health, whether the recipient is consciously perturbed by the noise or not. I disagree with the conclusion that the solution to dealing with increased noise levels is to put up with them and try to block them out.

Anna, Canada

Marrying a piano teacher - then having two musician boys - has been an eye (or ear?) opener in this respect. Children practising piano - and more recently, drums, with electric guitar and amps and all the clobber that comes with it - has brought its own set of rules. "Professional", "practising", "serious" and "rehearsing" are all words that justify a racket that otherwise I might not tolerate. Sometimes also it's the sense of powerlessness over a noise that brings the worst reaction. Thumping dance music is in a league of its own for getting to me, but mostly when it's inflicted by someone down the road or through a thin wall and there is no possibility of getting it stopped, and no knowledge of how long it's set to go on. If my own children are making a noise I know I can pull the plug if it gets too much, and at least can have a reasonable discussion. I think it's all very subjective and bound up with preconceptions and weird notions of "work ethic".

Camilla Comeau, Truro, UK

I work in Midtown Manhattan. Even on the 11th floor of our building the street noise from fire trucks (horn and siren), ambulances (siren) and trucks/taxis (unnecessary horn use) is extremely intrusive. It seems to have got worse as louder and more penetrating sirens have been developed over the years. There is now talk of using low-frequency body-shaking sound to "force" vehicles to move out of the way. Most of the noise is generated by emergency response vehicles, but taxis are also among the worst offenders. My biggest wish would be to ban horn use (excepting emergencies) and have fire trucks and ambulances sirens de-tuned to a level that does not deafen bystanders.

Ian Crossley, Chatham, NJ, US

Perhaps you should give pedestrians and cyclists a little more attention lest you are awoken from your meditations by those annoying beeps warning that you are about to crush them under your wheels. Does the expression "driving without due care and attention" ring any bells, or buzzers or beeps?

Stan Thomas, Wrexham, UK

I remember my father educating me not to impose my noise on other people. This was probably in the early 1960s at the time of the new fangled portable transistor radio the size of a suitcase. It is ultimately about being considerate and I think we were then, whereas now there is more selfishness and less consideration for others.

Brian Hughes, Bradford on Avon, England

You are so lucky to be able to hear the noises of an MRI machine. I went for one and was warned about the noise but I heard nothing at all. I have since had a cochlear implant, one of the reasons for the MRI. Now I can hear dogs snore and cats meow. It's all music to my ears. Almost.

Charles Eady, Renfrew, Canada

I just get so mad in shops which play music. It renders me unable to think. If I complain I get told "the staff like it". Well, the shop is not there for the staff. It's there for the customer. And they lose trade because of it. And if anyone knows of any restaurants which don't play music please tell me - sometimes one can hardly hear oneself speak. It takes all the pleasure away from dining out.

Marcia Malia, Windsor

The legendary Spike Milligan had the correct approach to noise POLLUTION - zero tolerance. I live in Taipei and am slowly being driven insane by the selfishness of others. From the perpetual barking of neglected pet dogs to the amplified and animated use of mobile phones on trains and in coffee shops. This is comparatively mild, considering the megaphones in front of stores (blasting out 30 second looped-tape messages to shoppers) and small advertising trucks fitted with large speakers that shout inane messages to all and sundry.

Kelvin Morris, Taipei

This is a remarkable example of a "first world whiner", someone who sees the remarkable luxury around them and can only think of how much they "suffer" at the small inconveniences that these machines have. Most of the annoyances could have the beep turned off if the writer could be bothered to check. Yes, traffic and other outdoor noises are problems but that is the trade off for living in a city - 100 years ago there would still have been people passing, traffic and probably more noise from vendors.

Tim Bartnett, Lothians

What about poor sound insulation in semi-detached houses and flats? In the various places I have lived, I've heard stomping and door slamming through the walls. In my last house, I could hear toilet flushing, a power shower and voices. Can construction standards be improved?

Jean, Cambridge, UK

Fast roads are a major source of noise as anyone unlucky enough to live within 500m will know, and this roar is continuous from dawn till dusk and often at night time as well. Some of our dual carriageways have high noise surfaces and other consequences of cost cutting specification. Road and air travel inflict a lot of collateral noise on residential areas and adjacent countryside. Like carbon pollution, it should be taxed to pay for remedial measures and greener healthier alternatives.

Roger Sibley, Torbay

You say "And yet, I suspect it is not silence that we crave. In the modern world, silence is a condition so rare that it is likely to cause unease rather than bring solace." We live in a small community in country NSW, Australia. We deliberately chose the location of our new home to enjoy the peace and quiet. We wake up to the sound of birds with no traffic noise, and only occasionally hear neighbours' machinery (lawn mowers etc). We walk in the bush or by the sea with only the sounds of nature. We appreciate that we are very fortunate to be able to enjoy this. We very rarely turn on the radio, and only listen to our own music for parts of the day. We actively enjoy the silence, and know plenty of people who are like us. From my observations, this is an age-related preference. Younger people actively enjoy the noise, most of the older ones barely tolerate it. Many, like us, refuse to tolerate it and just leave.

Jay, Australia

I suffer from tinnitus, so my world is never silent. However, I find there are two nuisances which are difficult to tolerate. Leaf blowers used to clear pavements and drives, and the incessant warning message broadcast when lorries, and particularly rubbish trucks, are reversing.

Lyn Hewitt-Jones, Bournemouth

As a person with mild Asperger's syndrome who is hypersensitive not only to sound, but to sight, and smell and touch and taste, I find the noises of this modern world to be extremely taxing at times. The ability to play back musical recordings on demand has been a godsend for personal use, but when one must endure loud recordings in restaurants and coffee shops, or even our own homes from inconsiderate neighbours, it becomes a deterrent to conversation and productivity. It is as if silence has become as urgent to tend to as spilled glass of water. Let us clean that up for you.

Jeffrey W, Southern California, US

Whether it's the pounding of a ludicrous car stereo or the tinny insistence of some playing an MP3 through their mobile phone on public transport, the one common denominator is awful taste. No-one ever plays anything that's any good in these situations.

Ian, London

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