Modern noise is unacceptable, and quite possibly driving us all insane.
Alarms used to bring the community running. Everyone heard them; everyone responded. All of sound used to be that way, evoking a response. We once lived in a world where all sound had purpose and meaning.
The noise we made was communal.
So much noise today is still man-made, but anything but useful.
Edgar Allen Poe’s poem ‘The Bells’ captures an 18th-century world of man-made sounds, from silver bells on sleighs announcing the arrival of guests on a cold winter Christmas to the deep tolling of iron church bells solemnly reminding the community of death.
Not so with today’s noise.
If you live in certain cities or neighborhoods or thinly walled buildings you grow almost (but never quite) deaf to the midnight chorus of car alarms. We lived for 3 years in Cali, Colombia where every car alarm is apparently made by a single company. I can still in my mind’s ear cycle through the precise series of different peals each alarm had; this is pretty easy to do if you’ve been awakened several times a night to the same cries for years.
We have accommodated a rudeness of noise in the 21st century. Maybe this is why we have lost civility. It’s a point of pride now for some to rumble through a neighborhood on their motorcycles, a deliberate act, mufflers trying to live up to the definition of situational irony and oxymoron. Stereo systems intended to rattle streetlights and windows.
At the primal level, animals make noises for 2 reasons: come here or go away. For humans, our greatest achievement, the source of all poetry and all music is what we’ve done with ‘come here’. We’ve turned that tether into a cord of infinite width and length, from the quietest stroke of a lullaby to the poetry sounding out across millennia. We are bound by the ‘come here’ nature of sound across space and time, connected to the past and reaching into the future.
But what of the ‘Go Away’?
As I write this, a house alarm is entering its 4th or 5th hour of shriek. I am not sure which house yet. It’s 6 am and I slept with a pillow over my head and I haven’t yet gone out to walk the dog and uselessly shake my fist at some immutable wall.
The alarm used to make us all run away or come running or some variation of both.
Maybe the problem is the ‘I Am Here’ nature of sound, that little extension of ‘Come Here’.
There’s a civility to noise that we’ve forgotten, not merely in being civil to each other but in bringing us together as a civilization. Perhaps in accepting the inescapable and inevitable sounds of technology and its attendant conveniences, we’ve forgotten our primal relationship with noise. Our televisions certainly don’t seem to know it.
The family went camping recently in the Minnesota Boundary Waters. 300 miles from the nearest city, 100 from the nearest major road. We canoed in: motors are banned. I got up at 3 am to marvel at a sky undimmed by human light and was more powerfully struck by a darkness untouched by human sound.
There was a time on our history — the hundreds of thousands of years we’ve been more or less the creatures we are today — when there were no sounds we ignored. If the wind changed, the crickets stopped, the birds whistled, the water grew louder — you noticed. Every bit of background noise was significant and meaningful.
Not so today. Today, almost all the noise in our lives is not merely ignored, it MUST be ignored lest it drive you insane. Because it’s not merely meaningless, it suggests that it is not meaningless. A squeaky fan, a dripping faucet, a barking dog. Sounds that click and tap and whir in the background with a pattern that creates its own insistence.
Half my friends (and nearly all the single ones) can’t sleep without some noise device, some machine that fills the air around them with a comforting, meaningless, blanket of hum.
The barking dog maybe best defines our new relationship with sound. For one, we bred the dogs to bark! The dog is humanity’s first car alarm. There was a time, of course, when an aggressively barking dog mattered. When the bark warned of a fox in the henhouse, a lion at the goats, a stranger at the window. A barking dog was a comfort, not merely there to wake you up, but also there to chase away with teeth and muscle if need be. The dog’s bark is now fundamentally useless against all but the dumbest of danger and 99% of the time as irritating a gesture as a car alarm, a useless safety device far less convenient or disruptive than a simple lock. If a genuine danger wants entry in today’s world, the yapping Pomeranian isn’t going to help. Nor will you, awakened at 3 am for the four-hundredth night in a row, stumbling downstairs in your bath slippers to shut the damned thing up.
We live with so much noise that we are literally losing our hearing.
Maybe this is the real reason we surround ourselves with music. Drive with it. Subway with it. At this moment, as I type, there is music in the background, reminding me, perhaps, that noise is still good, still powerful. It’s not really the music we need, though. It’s the reassurance that what we are surrounded by still has meaning.