Noise pollution and the perceived sonic environment
Pythagoreans believed that the great celestial bodies of the universe are ‘so
great in number and in size, [and] moving with so rapid a motion’, they asked
‘how should they not produce a sound immensely great?’ (1993 p.39). This
posed the question, if they are producing a sound, why can we not hear it?
We now know that there is no material in space for sound to travel through.
However in attempting to answer this question some two hundred years later,
Aristotle gave his thought - provoking solution:
The sound is in our ears from the very moment of birth and
is thus indistinguishable from its contrary silence, since
sound and silence are discriminated by mutual contrast.
(James, 1993 p.39)
This elegant explanation for silence, however scientifically inaccurate, can
lend itself to discussion of our modern sonic environment. This paper will first
look at subjective perception of sonic environment and move onto how aural
perception responds to the contemporary urban sonic environment.
The ability to hear a sound is no more hearing than looking is seeing. What
we choose to hear is selected from that which has moved the eardrum. For
proof of this, we need go no further than the phrase “I’m sorry I wasn’t
listening” or “Did you hear that?”. In his book Audio Vision, Chion states, ‘we
don’t hear sounds, in the sense of recognizing them, until shortly after we
have perceived them.’ He continues:
Clap your hands sharply and listen to the resulting sound.
Hearing – namely the synthesized apprehension of a small
fragment of the auditory event, consigned to memory – will
follow the event very closely, it will not be totally
simultaneous with it. (Chion, 1990 p.13)
Therefore, sound that makes it past the eardrum is analysed in short
retrospect and this requires a certain level of mental attention, or it will not be
consciously heard. While the term ‘sonic environment’ is used to describe all
the sounds within earshot of a person or place, the personal and discrete
sonic environment is built exclusively from what is consciously heard. If a
sound is created yet not heard, whether it has moved the eardrum or not is
irrelevant; it has not become part of the listener’s personal sonic environment.
The body’s hearing ability and our mind’s attentiveness need both be satisfied
if a sound is to contribute to the listener’s sonic experience.
What is it that determines whether we will pay particular attention to a sound?
Certainly dynamic contrast, for example a loud transient sound will draw
attention, whereas a quiet sound sitting discretely in the sonic ‘mix’ will more
than likely pass unnoticed. Also, the removal of a sound will also produce
dynamic contrast to the same effect, the evidence of which will be discussed
later in this paper. Context is equally as important; sound in unusual
juxtaposition such a voice when you think you are alone, no matter how quiet,
will undoubtedly rouse concern. Mental and emotional states play a role as
well. We may be actively listening for, or attempting to ignore sounds, as well
as concentrating too hard to devote adequate attention to our hearing. All of
these factors are paramount when considering the actual perceived sonic
environment. Even if a hum is present throughout, if our senses and mind are
pre-occupied enough for it not to ever come into conscious thought, then it
ceases to be part of the perceived sonic environment.
How does being born into a particular soundscape affect these traits of
auditory perception and tolerance of the noises from which it is composed?
Looking at the contemporary sonic environment and how it is subjectively
perceived may help us to better understand both this question and the future
of noise pollution.
The industrial revolution brought great machines into towns and cities,
generating intrusive noises that contrasted with the more natural soundscape
of the time. By the twentieth century, the ratio of natural to industrial sound
was beginning to tip in urban areas, and now the sounds of transportation and
construction have relegated those of nature to a privilege or novelty. The
tipping point at the turn of the twentieth century excited the creative minds of
the futurists, who embraced this fresh palette of sound. Alongside the
relatively new ability of sound reproduction, the aesthetics of music and sonic
environment were transformed. Composers such as Russolo and Marinetti
were inspired by the sounds of machinery and began not only composing with
these noises, but also building noise-producing instruments that reflected the
aesthetic of industry. (2008 p.34)
Those who were most prominent in the futurist movement were alive
throughout the tipping point. To them, many of the industrial sounds were
exciting because living amongst their abundance was a new experience and
provided fresh artistic material. In more recent times, these sounds have
become familiar, particularly for those who have been born into this
soundscape. Subsequently, there is less excitement and intrigue to
counterweight their negative attributes and as a result, the love affair is
waning. As Schafer comments; ‘Ultimately the throb of the machine began to
intoxicate man everywhere with its incessant vibrations.’ (2008 p.31). This is
the first important change in perception of sounds after the introduction of the
industrial sonic environment. The new and exciting traversed mundane and
became problematic. This is somewhat comparable to other effects of
industry, such as air pollution. The industrial cityscape is a roaring
arrangement of unnatural and intrusive sounds and this noise pollution is now
recognised as a problem that needs policing. In 1996, the European
Commission published a paper stating that the health of up to 20% of EU
citizens may be at risk due to noise pollution, either via volume level,
disturbing of sleep, or stress . Some of the industry is so necessary to our
economy, standard of living and survival that it seems to live with the
accompanying noise is an acceptable trade. The best we can do is to try to
reduce the negative effects on our environment by carefully considering the
use, positioning and design of tools, machinery and acoustic space.
So industry is accompanied by a loud and intrusive urban sonic environment.
At one time a thing of awe, followed by irritation. However we accept it as
part of everyday life, despite the obscene volume levels, having become
desensitised to some of its negative characteristics. Simon Reynolds offers
one reason for this. He suggests that traditional music subconsciously implies
that any tragedy or sadness is resolved, whereas noise – music only concerns
grief, terror and horror. We subsequently associate unpleasing sounds with
negative feeling and through being exposed to ‘noise’ music we become
accustomed to that level of ‘noise/horror’. (2008 p.57)
The problem is that, as with any drug or intoxicant, tolerance
builds up rapidly. The result is an exponential curve of
increased dosages of noise/horror, an upward spiral that will
one day, sooner than later, culminate in SEIZURE.
(Reynolds, 2008 p.57)
Reynolds seems to be largely referring to noise-music in this paper, however
many of the same sounds in noise music can be found in our everyday sonic
environment and since ancient Greece our sonic environment has been
considered a form of musical composition, so his theory will be applied to
both. Relating his views of desensitization to the issue of noise pollution we
could potentially say that we become accustomed to the level of noise
pollution around us and it ceases to disturb us, or at least has less of an
impact on our senses. This is the third stage in accepting a sonic
environment; we become somewhat desensitised to it. In terms of the
perceived sonic environment, this effectively reduces dynamic range and
therefore our attention is not so drawn toward these sounds. Awe to irritation
to desensitisation. Reynolds’ prediction of a noise-music seizure is only
possible if the noise is intentionally made to get louder and as noise is a
policed issue, it is unlikely to suffer the same problem.
Interestingly, when a sonic environment lacks dynamic range, after a period of
time, our senses adjust accordingly. The loudest sound, no matter how quiet,
has the potential to become uncomfortable. To stand in an anechoic chamber
and listen intently is at first a shock to our perception of sound, mainly
because there is a removal of noise, reducing dynamic range and drawing our
attention. Neil Middlemiss writes about the world’s quietist room:
Silence is a truly rare thing. All reverberation is removed… all
sounds that aren't coming from your own body disappear.
After a few moments in the anechoic chamber, you'll begin to
feel a touch jumpy. Hearing your heartbeat, your blood pulse,
the sound of your own ear buzzing and your body functioning
like you've never heard before has a tendency to be a bit
unnerving. (Middlemiss, 2007)
What Middlmiss is describing is musica human, a term coined by Pythagoras
to describe the sound made by the functioning of a human organism (1993
p.31). The fact that it is possible to hear these sounds clearly in a very quiet
sonic environment shows that we become accustomed to a certain dynamic
range and accept the loudest sound to be loud. However, after a period of
time, we relax to this and become less sensitive.
This response to alterations in dynamic range is important to consider since
the volume of the typical western sonic environment is changing. As a
country’s economy moves away from production of goods towards
administration and service, industry also begins to move away. The majority
of employment in the western world is in corporate, public or non-profit
services, as professionals. This signifies a post-industrialised economy. (1991
p.6) Danielle Bell highlights the main changes in her definition of a post-
In an industrial society, the services are transportation
utilities, and finance, which are auxiliary to the production of
goods, and personal service (… ) But in a post-industrial
society, the new services are primarily human services
(principally in health, education and social care).
We can hear how these changes have caused the typical western urban
soundscape to evolve. The most obvious differences are noisy factories
shutting down and fewer large-scale machines in operation, being replaced by
offices and computers. Alongside the development of new technologies, this
is having and will continue to have a profound effect on environmental sound.
As computers replace tills and typewriters and their memory becomes solid
state as opposed to mechanical and noise emitting, we hear fewer bells and
thuds. As electric vehicles become commonplace in cities, we may lose some
of the road – drone. As building techniques become increasingly pre-
fabricated with a greater focus on environment, we may have lost some of the
noise involved in construction. More developed countries have already begun
to find much of the louder mechanical, transient and deafening noises of an
industry – driven economy replaced with the quieter hums and buzzes of an
inviting post industrial and digital era. Roads may be one exception to this as
commuting is more affordable and transport of goods is taken away from river
and rail and onto the motorways.
Noise pollution is measured by monitoring the sound pressure level at varying
distances from the sound source. In this way, rules and regulations
concerned with noise deal only with particularly loud sounds, those related to
manufacture, construction and recreation. However, there is a new noise
pollution. Since the beginning of the digital revolution consumers have been
sold the promise of a more leisurely and productive lifestyle through
digitisation and commoditization, in the form of appliances humming and
buzzing with electrical current. This change has replaced many manual and
mechanical processes with electrical ones. These objects have entered both
our working and domestic lives, bringing with them a new soundtrack. Upon
escaping the drones, sirens and bangs of the industrial, we are swamped with
the hums, buzzes and whirrs of the digital and the post industrial. These are
not as loud, but still inescapable. Stopping to take notice of these sounds, it is
surprising quite how much there is to hear and often sounds will come to light
that have not been properly perceived before. A new breed of noise pollution
has made a home in our daily sonic environment.
In contrasting our reception of this soundscape era to the last, we can draw
out similarities in the perception of a new sonic environment and determine
whether the aforementioned changes in our attitude towards certain sounds
are specific to that of industry or to any new sonic environment. During the
advent of industrial sound, we were shocked, then excited, irritated and
eventually desensitised. As the futurists were, we are currently to some
extent obsessed with the sounds that have accompanied an economical shift
alongside a technological advancement. This is apparent in contemporary
music with the use of hums, clicks, beeps and the use of computers as the
primary compositional tool. However, to be born into this new sonic
environment will undoubtedly mean that these sounds are less fascinating
and eventually become irritating. With fewer loud sounds around us, after a
period of enjoying the contrasting quiet and new aesthetic, our perception of
the dynamic range is likely to adjust as discussed previously. This will mean
that the constant hums of fans and electrical current become loud and then
have the potential to disturb, cause stress and affect health.
This is important to note because although health and safety is solely
concerned with the damaging effects of sustained loud noises, It does not
have to be loud to be damaging or disturbing in some way. Any addition or
removal of sound to the perceived sonic environment that is distracting,
irritating or damaging should be considered an issue. I believe we are already
in this stage, but the current definition of noise pollution it from becoming a
Following irritation, the next stage in the perception of sonic environment is to
become accustomed to particular sounds and rather than finding them a
nuisance, we simply cease to hear them, due to their becoming familiar and
failing to meet the criteria required to become part of the perceived sonic
environment. The drone of the air conditioning and computer fans fade out
cease to be heard. As in an anechoic chamber, the removal of these sounds
will draw attention and disturb, so we can say that the presence of this noise
pollution becomes comforting. Typically, sounds of nature have been used to
relax. Recordings of a stream, the ocean, birdsong or wind rustling leaves
have been sold for decades under the genre of ‘relaxation’. Recently, some
outlets have been stocking recordings of a clothes dryer, a desk fan or simply
white noise . Evidently some people find these noises relaxing and
comforting because this is now our environment and the removal of these
sounds, changes dynamic range, draws our attention and disturbs us.
Aristotle was correct in the fact that it is possible to be so accustomed to a
sound being in our ears that we fail to distinguish it from silence. It needs to
fit certain conditions in order to become a part in what I call the perceived
sonic environment. Several stages of change in aural perception due to sonic
surroundings have been identified. On entering a new sonic environment we
are at first unnerved by the presence or lack of aural qualities and as a result,
pay more attention to it. We listen more actively and are more sensitive to its
characteristics and nuances. We are next excited and inspired by it, in a way
accepting it as the new standard. This will lead to its’ use as a creative
substance or new aesthetic. The final stage occurs either when we are fully
accustomed to or when we are born into the mundane soundscape. We are
past irritation and intoxication by everyday sounds and they cease to enter our
personal sonic environment. They may enter periodically as mental and
emotional states change or if some aural aspect of them changes enough to
divert out attention, however on the whole we become desensitised and
deafened to our soundscape until a shift in economy or technology present a
distinctly original one and the cycle starts over.
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