Sound vs. noise: Drawing the battle lines between loud and quiet, exuberant and aggressive

By | October 29, 2020

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What is an acoustic ecologist to do in such a time? As usual, the answer was mostly to listen.

Her focus changed as a result. Originally she was focused on noise as a public health issue, not only for the threat of hearing loss, but also for the less obvious effects of sleep disturbance, chronic stress conditions, depression or anxiety.

But she came to see this as too narrow, ignoring what sound does to make people more sensitive to beauty, as well as hazard.

So the book is also partly a philosophical reflection on the good life, how sound fits into it, and what we can or should do about that.

The point was never simply to study sound, but to investigate its place in the world of human affairs, to acknowledge sound’s “dual identity as acoustic wave in the realm of physics and auditory sensation in the realm of physiology.”

Sound is not just physical waves that propagate through a forest, as in the famous Zen example, when a falling tree disturbs the surrounding air. It is also the end point of that wave, and its local effects, should it ever reach a hearing person’s ears.

Those effects are measurable on the eardrum, nerves, brain, mind, psyche, household, neighbourhood, society.

Perils abound: fire alarm testing in the apartment building, the rattle of a loose water pipe behind the wall, construction outside, the dog, the neighbour’s dog, the kids, the neighbour’s kids, the oppressive silence of an empty house, the Zoom call in the other room.

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