Turn It Down
How did we lose control of our audio space? Has the freedom to make noise won?
Posted May 28, 2019
The scene is a college graduation in May, held in a major city’s downtown arena, filled with happy parents, grandparents, relatives, and friends of the future proud alumni. About 15 minutes before the ceremony begins, a young woman rolls a cart out on to the middle of the stage. Hmm. This looks like one of those DJ setups, like you might see at a wedding or before the start of a concert. Could it be that she will be playing a selection of quiet musical interludes, fitting with the dignity of this event? Ah, no. In seconds, she is on the mic, hitting the smoke machine, playing her favorite songs at an amplified loudness set for the very back row of the venue. She starts shouting, “Make some noise!” while she creates plenty of her own.
The crowd of young graduates – most of whom range in age from 21 to 25 – eat it up. There is much dancing in the aisles as the students enjoy the music of their era. Which, not surprisingly, is not the era of music preferred by most of the seated crowd, whose ages range from the low 40s to upper 80s. The music is loud enough to be felt in their bones and it’s unrelenting. Mercifully, it’s over in about 15 minutes and the ceremony begins . . .
You’re sitting at a traffic light and a guy on his motorcycle splits the gap between your car and the one to your left. As he sits on his bike, he revs the throttle with his right hand, over and over and over. Not being a fan of the factory-installed exhaust and muffler systems, he has made his own modifications by removing them. The din is loud enough that you can’t hear the music or conversation in your car, even with the windows rolled up. The light turns green, he pops the clutch, and you watch - and hear - him roar away. . .
Same traffic light, two different guys (it’s rarely women who do this). As you sit in your car, you hear pounding music from Guy #1 behind you. His taste in horrible music is so loud that it vibrates your car windows. Same thing with Guy #2, only unlike Guy #1, who has the slight courtesy to keep his window rolled up, this cat #2 likes to keep his all of windows rolled down. This gives you the double benefit of getting to listen to his awful music at full, thumping volume so that it actually hurts your ears. (Guy #1 and Guy #2 can’t figure out why they are stone deaf at age 40. Cause and effect, fellas.)
You’re at the airport, waiting to catch your flight home. Your day has been filled with one long delay after the other. Bad and expensive food, a missed connection, rotten weather, you’ve seen it all. Perhaps you can get a little peace by just sitting in an uncrowded space and reading your book. As you try to rest, you hear the same TSA security announcements, over and over. Has anyone ever really asked a stranger to carry a package on board his or her plane? You hear the canned music over the PA, followed by the endless flight announcements, calling out the name of the same missing passenger or the TSA people reminding someone to return to the checkpoint to get his or her laptop. The ceiling TVs are blaring away at each gate, tuned forever to CNN and loud enough to be heard five gates away. . .
You’re in Vegas, baby! If you want to see intentional noise pollution at work, stand in any casino in Nevada or any other state that allows gambling and close your eyes for a moment. You’ll probably hear “Wheel of Fortune” shouted by a studio audience and on a never-ending loop from the electronic plinking slot machines that bear its brand name. You’ll hear canned music, people shouting across the casino floor, roaring drunks, and competing bands playing in the lounges. . .
Noise is everywhere now: loud music at the bar or restaurant where you are just trying to have a quiet meal; loud TVs and unwanted music choices at the gym, hair salon, or barbershop; loud door slammers and hallway shouters at all hours at your hotel; and people playing their YouTube videos on their phones, tablets, and laptops for your “enjoyment” in every public space. Have you ever been at a movie theater, waiting for the film to start and thought the volume for the pre-show announcements was too low?
Go to any professional sports arena or stadium and your ears will get assaulted the entire time: loud music, cutesy sound effects, and endless PA announcements - about lots of stuff that has nothing to do with the actual game. The people that run the scoreboards at these events must feel the need to fill every moment – timeouts, play stoppages, TV breaks – with some audio attack. The only time it’s actually quiet is when the ball or puck is in play.
Unwanted, unwelcome noise can make us edgy, impatient, and snappish with the people around us and we don’t always know why. It can raise our heart rates, make us more hypervigilant, and interfere with our thought processes and decision-making. We get internally angry at the people or situations that create or cause extra noise and we often feel powerless to do anything about it.
The irony of noise in our everyday surroundings is that the decibel levels have now reached such a high level of annoyance that it actually helps us tune it all out. Most people exposed to a constant barrage of noise adjust to it over time and simply stop hearing it. Like working at a garbage dump, you get used to the smell. Life is on loud nearly everywhere we go, so that we have had to create personal methods for coping. People wear headphones at work, on the subway, in the streets, and at their desks. Some folks choose to buy white noise machines to help them sleep because it’s just so noisy outside their bedrooms: cars honking; people shouting or arguing; dogs barking; fire truck, police car, and ambulance sirens blaring; trash trucks loading and unloading dumpsters at 0530, their trucks beeping as they back up; and the gardeners with their ever-present leaf blowers.
So what can we do to protect our hearing – no small health issue when you consider the longterm and not-repairable impacts of loud music on the delicate bones in your ears?
Bring earplugs with you. If you’re going somewhere where you might face unwelcome noise, keep a set of cheap foam inserts in your pocket or purse. As an example, when my daughter was in competitive cheerleading in junior high school, I took her to countless competitions, nearly every weekend. The format was always the same: I sat through 50 five-minute performances of all the other teams, just to be able to see my kid do her thing. The music was always the same: loud bubblegum techno beats with accompanying cartoonish sound effects. My earplugs allowed me to sit in peace like Dad Buddha.
Tell the owner or manager of the restaurant you frequent if he/she could please turn down the music just a touch. Don’t ask an employee. They don’t usually have the power over the facility’s volume knob or they might lie and say they turned it down or that the manager already told them no. If the owner/manager won’t turn the music down to a reasonable level, vote with your wallet and leave. There are plenty of quieter bars and restaurants who will want your trade.
If you’re at a loud event, go to the lobby or an open area until the main event starts, just to give your ears a break.
Invest in good noise-canceling headphones, but don’t wear them in the streets. Pay attention to your surroundings, not just your music or podcasts.
Move to a quieter neighborhood. The P & Q (peace and quiet) will add years to your life.
Get your hearing tested annually. You might be surprised about the damage you’ve accumulated so far.
What is my audio message for the world? Please keep your favorite noises to yourself.