Lawn mower cutting grass

Surviving a noise-polluted world

In Insight and Experience by LivingNowLeave a Comment

We have all been through it – we find ourselves stuck at a red light, and someone pulls up in the adjacent lane, with windows down and music blaring out with such force that our own car vibrates with the shock.


The person in the other car – typically a callow male teenager – has no thought that his personal tastes in music might interfere with, or even annoy other people, and it may come as no surprise to us to discover that when the traffic light turns green, he hares away from it, subjecting us to yet more noise, in the form of the roarer muffler he has had fitted to his exhaust system!

It seems to me that we live in a noise-polluted world, and that the amount of unwanted decibels has increased dramatically in recent years. If I am correct in suggesting that noise increases stress and tension, then we are subjecting ourselves to a serious urban environmental threat.

This is not to say that all noise is bad, and I shall address ‘positive sounds’ later. In fact, even some of our own, irritating, man-made sounds have their uses. I am sure nobody is charmed by the bleeps that trucks make when they engage reverse gear, but if a partially sighted – or unsighted – person is in the vicinity, those bleeps are a vital warning, as are similar sounds made at pedestrian crossings when the “walk” sign illuminates.

However, some sounds seem to have been engineered to drive us mad. A few months ago I accidentally hit a key on my computer and discovered to my great surprise that I had disabled a computer voice on my printer. What joy! Up until then, whenever I started a print job the printer spoke to me:
“Printing started.”
And when I had finished, “Printing completed.”
And, sometimes, in the middle of a job, “Your ink cartridge is low.”

All this in a nasal American accent that made Fran Dreschler (remember The Nanny?) sound like an elocution teacher.

Surely this is the sort of rubbish we do not need, just as we do not need trains at airport terminals to tell us that the door is opening, or closing. There was a time when we would step into one of these trains, secure in the knowledge that the doors would shortly close, and when the train came to a halt, our I.Q. was sufficient to guess that in all probability the doors would open again, to let us out. (The Airtrain at San Francisco goes even further, admonishing us to hold the handrail and lock the brake on our baggage trolley, another symptom of a society being molly-coddled by unnecessary words.)

Of all the sounds that invade us, I find computer bleeps the most annoying. If I am burning a CD or DVD, the computer continuously bleeps during the process, and I can only wonder whether stressful beta waves go into overdrive in the brains of supermarket checkout operators, who have to endure some hundreds of bleeps every hour, as lasers scan barcodes.

The question of brain waves is an important one, because it has been scientifically proven that sounds can influence each of the four wave patterns. The slowest of them are delta waves, from 0-4 cycles per second, and these appear to function best in conditions of total silence. Theta waves (4-8 cps) are also associated with sleep, but likewise with creativity, and dreams, and they can be stimulated by gentle sounds, as the following example shows.

W.C. Fields (1879-1946) was a famous American comedian. He was also a child-hater, bird-hater, an out-and-out misanthrope, and one of the most indulgent alcoholics Hollywood ever spawned. Towards the end it caught up with him, and his doctor told him – in the same sort of blunt English that Fields himself used – that one more drink could kill him. Faced with no alternative, Fields gave up the bourbon, but found he could not get to sleep at night, except on those few nights when it rained in Los Angeles. He loved the sound of rain, and he would fall asleep quickly and peacefully, a monster-turned-purring kitten.

But most L.A. nights were dry. So his wife would go outside as soon as Fields went to bed, and turn the garden hose on the roof. Believing it was raining, Fields slept, and a man who – doctors guessed – would not live to be 60, in fact made it to 67.

The more active and rapid brain waves are alpha and beta, running respectively at 8-13 and 13-26 cycles per second. Alpha waves are generally connected to a relaxed, yet alert, mental state, or shifting consciousness, and again they can be stimulated by sound, notably by music. Electroencephalograms (EEGs) of Tibetan monks have shown very considerable alpha wave activity, which seems to be enhanced when the monks chant.

However, when it comes to beta waves, sounds – including music – can have a deleterious effect. Beta waves are connected to conscious activity, and under stress they can speed up and even exceed the notional 26 cps threshold. Psychiatrists have observed this in cases of people suffering from schizophrenia and other mental disorders. Beta waves are also associated with the fast pace at which most of us have to live our daily lives, coping with all those unwanted tensions that we seem to confront at work and at home on a daily basis, and which so often manifest themselves in displays of anger. Certain sounds can over-impact on beta waves, and thus increase the tension and anger even further, and one of the prime culprits appears to be rock music.

Now, I am not a classical musician trying to have a dig at pop culture – it has nothing to do with personal musical preferences, but everything to do with pure science, and also with the important distinction we should make between the voluntary listener and the involuntary hearer.

Imagine you are sitting in a train, trying to read, and there is someone next to you listening to pop music on an iPod. That person is the voluntary listener, absorbing the whole body of the song; melody, lyrics and rhythm. But you are the involuntary hearer, and what can you hear? Not the lyrics, nor yet the melody. Only the muted, but totally intrusive dull thud of the drums, always following the “M-chk, M-M, chk” rhythmic pattern which seems to be the only rhythm that rock music permits these days. This endless repetition may be entertainment to the person voluntarily listening on the iPod, but to the involuntary hearer it can be a form of torture.

This insistence on ‘beat’, and the mind-numbing effect it can have, can be seen if we draw a comparison from an unlikely source, the army. The first thing infantry soldiers learn is to march in step. However, there are occasions when they deliberately have to march out of step. One such is when they have to cross a swing bridge over a gorge. In such an instance, instead of everyone marching ‘left-right-left-right’, the front soldier will lead with the left, but the soldier immediately behind will lead with the right. It’s called breaking step, and it is done to ensure the stability of the bridge. If everyone marched IN step, the bridge would start to sway with the rhythm, and eventually it would become unstable and topple the entire platoon into the river.

It’s the same with the rhythms in pop music, which are so uniform and monotonous that to involuntary hearers they seem capable of stimulating negative attitudes (such as anxiety and aggression), while, paradoxically, they dull the brains of the voluntary listeners. Nor is this confined to pop music. It’s merely most common there, because this is the genre that most people listen to. It could equally be applied to ‘serious’ composers such as Stockhausen, Elliott Carter and Philip Glass.

I am certain that intrusive music explains why so many of us feel instantly stressed the minute we enter a large shopping mall. Muzak is everywhere. The mall operators pipe it down the corridors, and each individual shop has its own canned music as well. Our ears are bombarded by a montage of unwanted noise, over the top of which there are spruikers with microphones, extolling us to buy something before the sale ends at 11.30, TV screens talking to us (or at us), and goodness knows what else, including the sound of our own voices, trying to talk to each other, and having to yell in the process to cover the din. A Tower of Babel redesigned for modern society.

After that, the home should truly be a quiet sanctum sanctorum, but even here the noise invasion continues.

When I first mentioned this article to my wife I asked her to name her most annoying noise pollutants. Because we spend much of our lives on tour, she instantly nominated two: noisy air conditioners in motel rooms, and the excessive loudness of TV commercials. The broadcasters and advertising agencies make all sorts of excuses, trying to persuade us that it’s the technology involved in making TV ads that makes them seem louder than the programs they interrupt.

This is not so. The fact is: they are louder, because we don’t make a coffee during the drama or comedy or documentary. Instead, we wait for the ad break, and the decibels have to be reinforced so that the ‘message’ can be reinforced. The worst offenders are the hard-sell commercials that bark at us, exhorting us to “Buy now! – Only nine dollars ninety-nine at….” [the reader can insert the name of the store here]. Interestingly, in the USA, which pioneered the TV commercial, these thunderously loud voiceovers do not exist. American ads are much quieter than their Australian counterparts.

If we turn now from the urban environment to the wider, natural scenario, is there any evidence that noise can affect plants and animals? There is, and much of it stems from ground-breaking research done in the 1960s and 1970s, which more recent experiments have corroborated, rather than challenged.

These experiments have been documented in such thought-provoking books as Lyall Watson’s Supernature, and John Whitman’s The Psychic Power of Plants, and they reveal much about plants’ ability to respond positively to human speech (maybe we should not dismiss Prince Charles’ views on this so lightly!), and a surprisingly wide and rapid set of reactions to music. For example, one trial placed rubber plants next to a pair of loudspeakers, exposing the plants, in turn, to the then-popular heavy metal rock (such as Led Zeppelin), and to classical composers such as Beethoven and Mozart. The rubber plants (which have very malleable stems) turned away from the speakers when the heavy metal was played, but grew tall and sprouted new leaves when they ‘heard’ (we can substitute the word ‘felt’) Beethoven, and, when the sitar music of Ravi Shankar was played, they even turned towards the speakers.

Likewise, the animal kingdom is particularly sensitive to noise. The USA’s rarest big cat is the North American lynx, now confined to just a few pockets in the Rocky Mountains. Unfortunately, while these pockets are protected, in terms of hunting, they are still accessible to the public, and people can apply for permits to drive ATVs (all terrain vehicles) into this wilderness. The noise of these machines, which are in essence just a development from ride-on lawnmowers, is seriously affecting the lynx, which has very sensitive hearing. Lynx numbers are dwindling because the noise of the ATVs is driving them into ever more inaccessible parts of the mountains, where prey species are scarce.

There have also been theories put forward with regard to whales and dolphins, for some researchers believe that when individuals, or sometimes entire pods of these animals become disorientated, and beach themselves, it may be due to the fact that they communicate by means of a form of sonar, which can sometimes be ‘intercepted’ by the sound wave patterns emitted from ships’ engines, communications systems or radar. The animals lock into these wave patterns and change direction. The science on this is still in its infancy, but it may be unwise to dismiss the theories out of hand, as instances of beaching seem to have increased since the advent of mechanised sea transport and telecommunications, which is at odds with the fact that dolphin and whale numbers have decreased over the same period.

If I were to take just one example of an animal being traumatised by noise it would be a Fennec fox I saw in a zoo. This is a small fox (the size of a corgi), endowed with disproportionately large ears. This is because it lives in the north African desert and its highly developed hearing is its principal hunting tool. In its zoo enclosure, the fox was surrounded by noises of all sorts of animals – humans included – that it had never encountered in the wild. Elephants trumpeting, macaws squawking, monkeys chattering – not knowing where these animals were, nor which might be potential predators, the poor fox went visibly mad at the cacophony. It spent its entire day running from one end of its enclosure to the other, always in a dead straight line. The noise had turned the fox into a lunatic, and its supposed sanctuary into an asylum, just like Bedlam. (Captive Tasmanian devils have been observed behaving the same way when exposed to similar conditions.)

Fortunately, we can take heart from the fact that for every negative noise we experience, there is a positive alternative at hand. If we don’t like loud music we can switch over to something gentler, more soothing; we can mute those TV ads; we can go outside and listen to birdsong, or stay indoors and be lulled by raindrops; we can boycott those shopping malls and buy our vegetables at a growers’ market.

And, perhaps on a Sunday summer morning, we can indulge ourselves by lying in bed, and listening to the sound – of silence.

Until it is shattered by a concerto for 16 lawnmowers….


By David Scheel is a concert pianist, composer and humourist. Away from live performance he is also a respected writer and broadcaster on environmental issues. He lives in the Blue Mountains, N.S.W.

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