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.

Image caption 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.

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.

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".

Image caption 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.

Image caption 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.

Image caption 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.

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