The loud, utterly annoying soundtracks of our lives

Sat, Sep 8, 2012, 01:00

A COUPLE OF weeks ago, late at night, I was sitting in the waiting room of a maternity hospital (obviously not for myself – not directly, anyhow). As we waited, two men bickered with each other and occasionally shouted at a woman down the phone. It was quite unseemly and terribly loud. The temptation was to stand up, walk over and put a stop to it, but, you know, it really didn’t seem my place.

So we sat with that radio turned up and tuned in to one of those phone-in shows in which everyone is gleefully angry with everything and everyone. If it had been a dentist’s surgery, in which piped-in yelling might be useful for drowning out drilling and yelps and God knows what, that might be understandable. But a maternity hospital? The right vibe is not “taxi stereotype”.

I was reminded of this thanks to a letter, written by an E Barrett, that appeared in The Irish Times this week. “At the weekend,” it explained, “I travelled to Galway and back on the bus. Two out of the three drivers had ‘music’ on, with yelling ‘singers’ and loud drumbeats. No wonder we’re all deaf. And that’s not to mention the shops, which seem to think we can’t buy anything without noise.”

I have no problem with “music” per se, nor the “singers”, “drummers” or “guitarists”, or the “dancing” that accompanies it. Yet you have to empathise with a voice rising above the din, begging for the right not be assaulted by radio, music or television on every step of one’s journey through daily life.

To travel through the world – this part of it – is to offer your ears up to constant harrassment and occasional molestation. The radio in a surgery. The music on a bus. The muzak in a shop. The looping British headlines of Sky News that have become as much part of the Irish pub as fake Irish pub tat.

“The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague,” according to the Nobel prize-winning bacteriologist Robert Koch. He said that in 1905. As the sound map and noise-pollution strategies of Cork and Dublin and major cities everywhere inform us, that battle has been going for quite some time.

The grinding teeth of bus passengers is the sound only of the small-arms fire. Nor is music in shops the chief concern. Instead, the major assault on the ears is identified as coming from traffic. In the years between 2007 and 2012, in Dublin at least, it is considered to have improved somewhat, although “approximately 24 per cent of the population are being exposed to undesirable nighttime sound levels of greater than” 55 decibels. (I checked out what that noise is equivalent to: “a suburban street”. But of course.)

Yet as the streets’ noise drops a little, their units only raise their babble. It has become a common expectation that restaurants, shops and buses must guard us from hush, that you must have a constant soundtrack to your life, that you cannot work a hotel breakfast buffet without the accompaniment of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game on pan pipes.

Even where there has traditionally been noise, such as at a sports stadium, it is deemed not the right kind of noise. Instead the game – as well as your support – is repeatedly usurped by pounding music and cheerleading, so that being a supporter now consists of 5 per cent joy, 80 per cent disappointment and 15 per cent Guantánamo inmate.

Did we invite this? Perhaps we have been too keen to show an aversion to hush, a discomfort with quiet. Even the minute’s silence has evolved into the minute’s applause.

However, to the letter-writer: there is a solution to the imposition of an unwanted soundtrack, a simple escape as found by many every day, on every commute: more music. Donning the headphones is not necessarily an act of absorption but an act of escape. It’s about taking control of your own soundtrack, of acknowledging that it’s a choice between hearing your neighbour’s leaky iPod earphones or blocking them out with yours. That when there’s no chance of silence, it’s better to build a wall of noise.

Then you can go deaf in peace.


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