I think I may have unusually sensitive hearing, or something. Before you say ‘well I’d hope so too seeing as you’re a musician’, read on.
The other night I got out of bed, went round to my neighbour’s door and asked them (read: their pre/teen children) to be quieter. The noise of feet and (admittedly high-pitched and excited) voices, through a party wall, was keeping me awake.
In my desk job, the room I sit in is directly above the workplace gym. Which has classes between something like 12 and 2. When we moved back in after a refurb, a lot of people said they could hear bits of ‘music’ coming through the floor – but I seemed to be the only one finding the kick drum and fragments of sub bass so distracting that I had to put other music on headphones to be able to work. I think the gym must have turned the volume down a bit eventually as I don’t hear much of it any more.
I also seem to find loud noises more physically painful than most, judging by how much more I wince and put my hands over my ears than the people around me – or maybe, having friends with tinnitus etc. etc., I’m just more scared of my hearing deteriorating. I certainly spend an unusual amount of time with earplugs in, either in loud contexts or because someone else’s conversation (or small child) is coming through to me very clearly in otherwise fairly quiet ones and I find it really rubs me up the wrong way.
I’m sure most of this is just me and being unusually sensitive to sound in a largely visual world (if your eyes were as bad as mine you probably would be too). But I suspect we’ve become a loud society as well. The more or less universal availability of earphones that can go quite loud, and ever-increasing social acceptance of wearing them anywhere you aren’t actually engaged in a conversation, means many people keep up a near-constant barrier of sound around them. If they aren’t on their iPod they may well be on their phone – again, often with earphones and a hands-free mike. Then anyone that actually wants to get their attention has to get over that noise threshold. In an instant-impact, stimulus-overcrowded society, the main way of getting your sound listened to, standing out from the hubbub so people might go and buy something, or do whatever you’re trying to get them to, is to be louder, higher, lower, more penetrating.
Silence is an illusion. This is the story behind John Cage’s infamous and much misunderstood 3′ 44″. He was invited to a totally unresonant and sound-insulated space that had been created by a US university. He spent some time in it and then said ‘Guys, you’ve got it wrong. I can still hear a high-pitched sound and a low-pitched one.’ The researchers explained these weren’t external sounds – the low-pitched sound was the vibration created by his blood circulating, and the high-pitched one effectively static in the electrochemical circuitry of his nervous system. Of course, in the context of traditional classical music which (especially by the 20th century) assumed it would start from, finish at and be surrounded by silence, the discovery that no one has ever experienced actual silence was fascinating, and led to the experiment of creating a piece which was in fact nearly four minutes of whatever background noise was present. One thing 3′ 44″ never is is what it is often called: 3 minutes 44 seconds of silence. Because from a human perception, there is no such thing.
But our noisy world makes us all more and more desensitised to sound. The louder your usual background levels and the more of your time you spend deliberately wrapping yourself in a soundtrack, the less you notice of the sounds that exist outside of your sound-bubble. Never mind not hearing silence, the archetypal modern person doesn’t hear most of what happens twelve inches away. It seems to me I’d rather be distracted, hear things I didn’t actively choose to, and even get annoyed sometimes, than live inside that invisible isolation wall of loud.