For many years I lived in a very quiet place.  Then I moved, and for the next several years I lived in another very quiet place. More recently I moved again, this time to my current place, which is not so quiet. Even though this place is not on a main road, there is a major thoroughfare not too far away, and the local topography is such that the traffic sound scoops right up here, an omnipresent wall of continuous, mostly low-frequency motor noise. Some times are worse than others, seemingly depending on atmospheric conditions, and occasionally it’s not so bad, but it’s never really quiet. It is often, for me at least, seriously oppressive.

Some people have said, “you’ll get used to it; eventually you’ll scarcely notice it.” Others aren’t so sure.  Well, I’ve been here coming on two years now, and I haven’t gotten used to it. But some progress: I am less stressed by it than I was at first; I’m a little more accepting, less obsessive and less perfectionist in my ideals regarding sound environment.

I put a lot of thought into the question of whether anything could be done about it.  Ear plugs? Noise-canceling headphones? The idea of stopping up my ears, or routinely wearing big sound-blocking devices on my head, seems sort of stupidly contrary to what I’d like to think is my relationship with the world around me. Some people recommend masking — setting up some pleasant sound like a water fountain to overlay unwanted sound — but that idea reminds me of the phrase “lipstick on a pig.”  I’ve fantasized about some yet-to-be-invented technology of noise cancellation that blankets a larger area, say as big as a yard or a neighborhood, rather than being localized in headphones. Realistically, though, it’s hard to picture how such a technology might work without requiring an insanely massive engineering project.

A side note, perhaps useful information for others like me who are a little too noise-sensitive for their own good: I did pick up second-hand a set of noise-canceling headphones, a nice pair made by the industry leaders, Bose. Interestingly, their noise reduction effect is opposite to that of passive earmuffs like the hearing protection often used on job sites. While passive earmuffs do best at blocking high frequencies, the noise-cancelers are most effective at blocking the lows. (This is not surprising when you think about how each type does what it does.) That’s very nice! With the noise-cancelling headphones I can block most of the low-frequency motor noise while still hearing birds and crickets. And clearly the manufacturer put a lot of thought into the comfort question: they’re lightweight and nicely padded and soft, although inevitably they do begin to feel oppressive after a while.  More recently I had the opportunity to try the in-ear noise cancellers, sometimes called ear buds. The ones I tried, also by Bose, were less effective than the headphones at noise cancellation, though still not bad, and they were more comfortable for prolonged wear.  These devices do not, of course, make life pristine — going around with these things on one’s head is a far cry from actually being in a soul-soothing sonic landscape — but for me they have been helpful at times.

I discovered that, coincidentally, a good friend of mine had had a hand in the design of some of the earliest products of this sort: he was working at Bose in — was it the early eighties? — when old man Bose himself returned from an unpleasantly loud airplane trip and declared “I think we can do this; it should be technically feasible” (or words to that effect). He handed to my friend the task of doing initial research on how to approach the design of the anti-noise headgear he was envisioning. My friend, not wishing to claim more credit than is his due, says that, following his initial research, as his career path later took him away from Bose, he handed the project off to others who did the bulk of the design work. But still, thanks Kim, for your part in the early design of what has proven to be a valuable technology.

One thing I’ve learned since moving to this new place and being forced to think about environmental noise is that I’m not one who craves pure silence.  I like having a bit of life in my sound environment. Of course, I love a natural soundscape, subtle, varied and rich — the rustling leaves, a tree creaking in the wind, the birds, summer night cricket chorus, a musical brook – but I’m also happy with the occasional overheard conversation, the clinking and clanging of someone in the kitchen doing dishes, the noisily excitable kids on the way home from school, a rake scraping the sidewalk, a bit of non-power-tool hammering or sawing. It’s the droning motor sounds that get me down: car traffic below, airplanes overhead, chain saws, weed whackers, leaf blowers (the bane of contemporary suburban American life). I may be untypical in this: I find continuous, low frequency sounds most oppressive. This means that I don’t hate the occasional barking dog, or the overloud sporadic opining of a passing drunk, as much as some people do, but have a harder time with a generalized drone of traffic that others might not even notice.

Through all this I find myself with this thought: It matters what it feels like, from moment to moment, to be in the world. One is constantly washed over with all the things that touch the senses. Primary attention typically goes to the sites: how beautiful (visually) is nature, or how endlessly interesting the cityscape. Considerably less attention goes to feel and smell, yet surely these perceptions are as much a part of the sense of the moment as the more remarked-upon visual landscape. And then there are the sounds. For me, the soundscape is of the essence; for others, well, I suspect that it is more essential than is usually acknowledged. I recall many years ago reading the comments of a blind man who loved nature walks. The interviewer’s set-up question for him was something like “Why? … since you can’t see the beauty that others come to see?” The blind man answered, of course, that there is much more to take in than just the sites, and continued with an enumeration of all the lovely things his walks brought to the other senses. His response has stayed with me since, and is reflected in my comments here.

So what to do about my burdensome noise obsession? The first answer, of course, is “hey, get over it! Other people have real problems and you’re hung up on this? Get a life.” Fine, I accept that and, as noted above, I am making progress.

My other thought is: One should not expect a pristine sound environment all the time; you gotta accept that contemporary life has a lot of grunge in it. But also, it’s worth something to make space for some actual sweet sound time to take pleasure in, free of droning motor sounds but quietly rich in every-day human or natural sounds. Maybe even occasionally a little actual sound-meditation time, which means seeking a place that is a relatively grunge-free and just listening for a few minutes.

Finding good places for that is difficult. Motor sounds are almost everywhere now. Even in seemingly protected natural places there are planes flying overhead with disheartening frequency.

There is some possibility that our inhabited earth is approaching peak noise. Much quieter electric motors are slowly replacing internal combustion engines in many applications, with automobiles prominent among them. I’ve read that a new jet engine design is coming along which is significantly quieter than those in current use, and actually stands some chance of being widely adopted because it’s also a fuel saver. And an increase in people’s awareness of noise as a pollutant means that we may see more municipal controls on the damn leaf blowers. So maybe in ten, twenty, thirty years, some improvement in the big picture?  Too bad I’ll probably be dead by then.  But a good thing for all you youngsters.

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