On Our Din And Roar: Thinking About Loud Sounds

by Thomas Brett

I’ve been a wearer of earplugs for about fifteen years now. The reason? I work regularly in a loud orchestra pit and live in a loud city and ironically enough, I have never really liked loud sounds. (Which is perversely a big part of the reason I became a percussionist: either to become a victim of my musical interests or to attempt to have at least some control of my dislikes. It’s complicated!) I wear earplugs getting to work, at work, and anywhere else that feels too loud.

I thought about my earplug habit recently when I came across not one but two newspaper articles on noise over the span of two days. The first, William Broad’s  “Whales, Somehow, Are Coping With Humans’ Din”, explores the impact of human-generated noise on hearing loss among deep-sea mammals. According to Broad, scientists are now working on ways to warn the whales before the onset of loud sounds to trigger in them an intuitive response that, remarkably, they already have: basically a whale version of plugging one’s ears to reduce a loud sound’s ability to inflict harm.

Sea mammals–like whales, dolphins, seals, and walruses–have incredible hearing acuity, evolved in part in response to the low visibility underwater, and in response to the fact that sound travels much faster and more efficiently there than it does through air. The problem with human sonic encroachment on whales is not simply a matter of damaging their acute hearing though; exposure to loud sounds, says Broad, has been shown to be linked “to reductions in mammalian vocalization, which suggests declines in foraging and breeding.” In other words, our pollution of the natural world is not just about toxic chemicals and fumes anymore. Our toxically loud noises also threaten to knock other creatures into submission and perhaps eventual extinction too.

The second article, Cara Buckley’s “Working or Playing Indoors, New Yorkers Face an Unabated Roar”, looks at the dangerously high sound levels in New York City retail stores, restaurants, and fitness clubs. Not surprisingly, loud music makes people buy more stuff, eat faster, and work out harder. For businesses, these are good kinds of behavior modifications (in fact, precisely the kind of modifications intended by “sound consultants” who advise businesses on such matters). But physically speaking, loud sound is pretty bad for us:  it’s been linked to stress, hypertension and heart disease, and is a direct cause of hearing loss. Loud sound, whether in the form of music blasting or subways screeching, is a big problem that continues to hum beneath our health radars.  And of course, we’re the primary cause of it all.

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Now, think about it: we wear sunscreen to protect our skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays, and we wear sunglasses to shield our eyes from its glare. So why don’t more of us protect our ears from those shards of harmfully loud sounds? Is there maybe a stigma attached to finding a sound just too darn loud and raising one’s hands up to plug the ears–the bodily gesture that screams “I just can’t take this anymore!”?

I don’t know the answer to this last question. But here’s an idea: an “intelligent” foam–a “soundscreen” if you will–that we could inject into our ears before we head out for a loud evening on the town. When we encounter loud sounds, the foam would expand swiftly and intelligently to filter the sounds (reducing their decibel levels while preserving their frequency characteristics), and then shrink down again as the sounds diminished. I’m not sure exactly how this technology would work, not to mention how we would get it out of ears, but it’s an idea. You could also just wear those blue foam earplugs I guess.

Or we could all just agree to get quieter.

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Ha. You’re right, quiet is not going to happen. And one of the reasons–besides the fact that can’t really tell others to “keep it down”–is that we humans are sensual sensory creatures. It’s not that we’re not bothered by the prospect of damaging our hearing. It’s that we’re more taken by the pleasures of experiencing loud sound–at concerts, clubs, at the gym, or in our headphones. I’m no exception either. When I’m working on a piece and reach a critical juncture–recording a part say, or listening to a rhythm real close–I will crank up the speaker volume for a few moments just to feel the music as much as hear it. Feeling versus hearing. I suspect that’s the visceral appeal of loud music for a lot of people: the volume alone–marking what Julian Henriques in his book Sonic Bodies memorably refers to as “sonic dominance”–seems to communicate on an entirely different plane than the music. It literally shakes and vibrates us. While it might not be good for us, it just feels good.

On that note, crank up your speakers/headphones to listen to these whale sounds!

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