Remove the noise
Photograph: H Armstrong Roberts/Corbis
Read an article republished from the Guardian
This column will change your life: Sounding off about excessive noise
Too much noise has serious psychological and physical consequences. So pipe down, please
An uncharitable observer might argue that I’m obsessed with noise. I’ve spent countless hours searching for the perfect earplug. I’ve bought, then returned, several pairs of expensive, noise-cancelling headphones. Sometimes, to stifle keyboard-hammering colleagues, I plug in ordinary headphones and listen to white noise generators, such as the one at simplynoise.com. I covet a noise-masking machine called the Marpac SoundScreen 980A, and once considered buying a pair of “noise-cancelling earmuffs” designed for use on building sites, an environment in which I spend approximately none of my time. I own a CD called Relaxing Sounds Of Nature, which has helped combat the Enraging Sounds Of Neighbours. In my defence, I like quoting Schopenhauer: “There are people [who] are not sensitive to noise; but they are just the very people who are not sensitive to argument, or thought, or poetry, or art… The reason of it is that the tissue of their brains is of a very rough and coarse quality.”
I’ve learned two things from all this. On the one hand, I’ve actually discovered the perfect earplug: it’s the Howard Leight Max, an orange foam number that I buy in boxes of 200 pairs. (The secret, you’ll be fascinated to learn, lies in shape of the flange.) On the other, I’ve had to confront the paradox of the quest for silence: the more you focus on trying to achieve quiet, the more you are bothered by noise; and the quieter you succeed in making things, the more disruptive any remaining noise becomes. I fear for the wellbeing of people behind groups such as the Noise Abatement Society: they must be eternally on edge.
We know that too much noise – at levels worse than anything I’ve had to endure – has serious psychological consequences, especially in children. At one New York school, pupils in classrooms facing an overground subway track fell a year behind pupils elsewhere in the building; similar effects have been linked to noise from Heathrow. After 1992, when Munich closed its old airport and opened a new one, academic performance rose at schools near the old site and fell near the new facility, while pupils’ stress hormone levels went in the opposite direction. Other studies suggest noise reduces our willingness to act generously towards strangers. And that’s not to mention the possible effects on physical health, which may include increased risk of heart attacks.
Yet not all noise, obviously, is bad: natural sounds, like waves on the shore, are almost universally experienced as restorative. And naturalness doesn’t seem to be key: white noise, too steady to sound natural, lulls babies to sleep even when it’s not masking other noises. What my earplug-hunt was about, I finally realised, wasn’t the absence of all noise, or even all non-natural noise, but the absence of noise I hadn’t chosen, couldn’t control, and that seemed to imply the noisemaker’s contempt for me. I’ve lived beneath two sets of noisy neighbours, but one cared about the problem, while the other didn’t. The difference in my irritation levels was enormous.
Recently, I spent several days in the pine forests of Massachusetts; on being shown to my room, I heard a constant, loud roar from outside. Briefly I feared I’d been placed next to a freeway, and I prepared to get angry. Then I opened the blind: it was the wind in the pines. Suddenly, it was an entirely wonderful sound.