BBCi BBC News BBC Sport BBC World Service BBC Weather A-Z Index
Special Title
  Sound around the world
  Addicted to noise
  Sound in the future
Addicted to noise

What is this constant exposure to noise doing to us?


Our world is getting noisier. Every day we use more and more machines, each contributing a few more, and often many more, decibels to the cacophony around us.

When we measured noise levels from traffic and other machinery inside a 'quiet' London restaurant, we found them as high as the loudest notes of orchestral instruments from two hundred years ago. In other words, what we think of as pleasant background setting our forebears would consider exceptionally voluble.

We've learnt how high the cost of chemical pollution is, the direct cost to the health of individuals, the damage done to nature, and the size of the clean-up bill we are passing
on to future generations. How long will it be before we realise the cost of too much noise?

What is this constant exposure to noise doing to us? Have we become habituated, even addicted to noise?


Dutch sonographer Floris van Manen says that noise is a kind of drug: it’s so easy to get hooked on it that most of us now feel distinctly uneasy when confronted with silence.

Next time you go to a concert, listen carefully to what happens when a long, loud passage is followed by a quiet one: many people start coughing. The constant over-exposure of our aural nerves is as addictive as using chemical stimulants, legal and forbidden ones. And the cold turkey can be surprisingly bad….


The International Commission on Biological Effects of Noise which meets every five years studies no less than nine different areas in which noise adversely affects humans. Prolonged exposure to noise can lead to impaired hearing and tinnitus, and yet how often have you sat on a bus next to someone with their headphones so loud practically everybody on board could hear the music.

Noise also affects our heart-rhythm and blood-pressure, and the way we behave towards one another. The louder the noise, the more aggressive we become.

The military have long since recognised this, from medieval battle-drummers and the awe-inspiring Hussite chants in 15th century Bohemia to piped combat music during the Vietnam war - all designed to get the attacking troops into a frenzied state and to terrify their opponents.


About one in ten of us gets tinnitus noises (ringing, whistling, buzzing or humming) 'in the ears' and/or 'in the head' with no external source. The noises may be continuous or they may come and go. Although the precise cause of tinnitus is still not fully understood, it is often linked to exposure to loud noises.

Once you have tinnitus, it is practically impossible to get rid of the noise in your head. It drowns out parts of a conversation, makes listening to some kinds of music virtually impossible. Navigating traffic becomes a nightmare, and some people are even forced to change career.


More and more people, particularly the younger generations, seem terrified by silence.

An extreme example of this is a new concert hall in Lucerne, Switzerland. Here no expense was spared to make it as quiet as possible, to cut out all background noise so that music could be heard in all its glory.

And yet a number of young musicians who have worked there have found the quietness of the place very disconcerting. ‘It’s like death in there’, said one of them.


Have you ever tried having a conversation, with
all its subtle silences and changes of tone, in a busy restaurant? It is a very frustrating experience if all you can do is shout.

And yet, in many restaurants loud noise is considered part of the atmosphere, part of the draw that helps attract customers.

Diners in San Francisco became so annoyed by the heightened noise levels that they encouraged the local newspaper to incorporate audio ratings within their reviews.

But restaurant owners are wary of changing ther sound environments, sensing that high levels of ambient noise is a key factor in giving restaurants a popular buzz. The owners also worry that quieter restaurants won't bring in as much business.

Do we really have to have a lot of noise in order
to enjoy ourselves?

^^ Back to top << Back to Globalisation