Silencity

The Truth About Noise

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On the ubiquity of pop music in public spaces

In “A Point of View: Why it’s time to turn the music off,” philospher Roger Scruton writes about pop music’s unrelenting assault on our ears in almost every public place today.  Scruton’s concern is focused on the smothering effect banal pop music has on young people and our musical tradition, but it is his indictment on background music in public spaces that sings to those of us who crave some silence:

Whole areas of civic space in our society are now policed by this sound, which drives anybody with the slightest feeling for music to distraction, and ensures that for many of us a visit to the pub or a meal in a restaurant have lost their residual meaning. These are no longer social events, but experiments in endurance, as you shout at each other over the deadly noise.

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And there is no law against it. You are rightly prevented from polluting the air of a restaurant with smoke; but nothing prevents the owner from inflicting this far worse pollution on his customers – pollution that poisons not the body but the soul. Of course, you can ask for the music to be turned off. But you will be met by blank and even hostile stares. What kind of a weirdo is this, who wants to impose his will on everyone? Who is he to dictate the noise levels? Such is the usual response. Background music is the default position. It is no longer silence to which we return when we cease to speak, but the empty chatter of the music-box. Silence must be excluded at all cost, since it awakens you to the emptiness that looms on the edge of modern life, threatening to confront you with the dreadful truth, that you have nothing whatever to say. On the other hand, if we knew silence for what once it was, as the plastic material that is shaped by real music, then it would not frighten us at all.

Noisy restaurants are part of a pattern

Eater NY restaurant critic Robert Sietsema addresses disturbing trends in the New York City restaurant industry in his recent piece, “Charting the Decline of Restaurant Comfortability.”

The focus of Sietsema’s article is on the restaurant industry’s attempt to cram as many diners as possible into the smallest possible space, but he also notes the role noise has played in the decline in restaurant comfortability:

Other features of declining comfortability involve noise levels and meal speed. The modern restaurant is noisy as hell, making meaningful conversation impossible and potentially leading to outright hearing loss. This prompts you to want to leave sooner, I contend, though others believe deafening noise is synonymous with having fun and eating well.

Sietsema concludes by stating that “it will probably take a real estate crash — or laws that prevent greedy real estate operators from letting restaurant spaces stand empty for long periods in anticipation of ridiculous rents — to return the average eating establishment to the level of comfort it displayed just 20 years ago.”  He may be right, at least with regard to the pressure on restaurant owners to squeeze as many customers as he or she can to satisfy the rapacious rents demanded by New York City commercial real estate moguls.  But there is something that can be done to address  loud restaurants.  Namely, if “background” music is a big factor in the noise level, ask that it be lowered.  If management refuses–and yes, they occasionally refuse–either get up and leave or, if you have already ordered, vow never to return again.  And do write the owner and tell him or her that they’ve lost a customer.   Eventually some restauranteurs will recognize the value in providing a comfortable and quiet space.

How a professional cellist learned to live with a career-ending ear injury:

The Atlantic has posted a fascinating aritcle by Janet Horvath, the former principal cello for the Minneapolis Orchestra who suffered an acoustic-shock injury to her left ear during a concert that led to a severe case of hyperacusis.  In “A musician afraid of sound,” Horvath writes that the placement of a speaker two feet from her ear left her unable to tolerate noise, including music.  The article allows those unfamiliar with hyperacusis to understand the devastation it can cause, particularly when the injury happens to someone for whom music was both a career and passion.  Fortunately, after being fitted “with modified hearing aids that…lower[ed] the volume of sound without altering its clarity,” followed by months of desensitization therapy, Horvath was to pick up her cello two years after her injury and play, but in the end she accepts that she would never be an orchestral musician again.

It’s gratifying to see a piece about hyperacusis in a mainstream publication, particularly since so few people are aware that it exists.  One hopes that pieces like this one, coupled with recent newpaper articles addressing restaurant noise, help to raise awareness about the noise pollution’s impact on health.

Thanks to Bryan Pollard for the link.  Bryan is the founder and president of Hyperacusis Research Limited, a non-profit charity dedicated to funding research on what causes hyperacusis with the the goal of developing effective treatments.

New York City reconsiders taxi tv screens

The New York Times reports that after almost a decade of being bombarded by unnecessary noise, taxi passengers may be given a reprieve.  Namely, it appears common sense may reign as the City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission may adopt a pilot program to remove the ubiquitous and annoying “Taxi TV from some cabs and replace it with more modern — and less intrusive — technology.”  This is welcome news for those of us who spend the first minutes in a cab struggling to find the right button to shut the tvs off.  One hopes that the pilot program will be successful and one less layer of noise and distraction will litter the city.

And no surprise, the cabbies are happy with the news too.  The New York Times reports that, “Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said the mood among drivers over the change was ‘utter elation.’  ‘The T.L.C. is eight years late in reversing a horrible decision,’ she said, ‘but we’re glad the time has finally come.’”

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the link.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.

Turn It Down: How to protect yourself against noise pollution

In “Turn It Down,” Dangerstoppers (Beverly Hills Television) highlights the dangers of noise exposure and its adverse effect on hearing.  The video is very good at informing viewers about dangerous levels of sound and provides tips on how one can limit his or her exposure to noise pollution.  Included in this important piece is Dr. Daniel Fink’s segment on ear plug options for hearing protection.

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the video link.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.

The costs of hearing loss:

The New York TIme’s Jane Brody writes about the high cost of hearing loss in Hearing Loss Costs Far More Than Ability to Hear.

Brody’s post focuses on a psychologist, Mark Hammel, who addressed his hearing loss by (finally) getting hearing aids.  Dr. Hammel provides insights into how hearing loss inflicts real and profound costs on sufferers, many of whom become socially isolated as a result of their condition.  But the post highlights the other costs as well, noting that “30 to 48 million Americans have hearing loss that significantly diminishes the quality of their lives — academically, professionally and medically as well as socially.”  Brody adds that hearing loss can affect physical health (e.g., increased risk of dementia, stress, fatigue), as well as create safety and financial risks.  And those around the hearing impaired suffer as well, as “[m]any who are hard of hearing don’t realize how distressing it is to family members, who typically report feeling frustrated, annoyed and sad as a consequence of communication difficulties and misunderstandings.”

Loud noise causes hearing loss, a preventable medical problem that will continue until and unless people understand the consequences of ignoring it.  The first step to implementing protections against excessive noise is getting poeple to recognize the real and significant costs to the sufferer, his or her family and friends, and society as a whole.  Kudos to Brody for her thoughtful post.

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the link.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.

10/07/2015 Update: Brody follows through with a companion piece that discusses the literal cost of hearing loss in The Hurdles to Getting Hearing Aids.  Among other things, Brody notes that while a failure to recognize hearing loss is one reason why people do not get hearing aids when needed, “the more important reason people fail to get hearing aids when they are needed is the cost, which is rarely covered by insurance and not at all by Medicare, unless the device is for a child.”  Given that the cost for one hearing aid (and most people need two) range from about $1,200 to $2,800,  it’s clear that the high cost of hearing aids keeps them out of the hands of the people who made need them the most.

What is a reasonable decibel range for a public space?

I’ve been doing a little internet research to see if there is a consensus as to what is considered a reasonable decibel range for normal conversation (i.e., no straining to be heard) and, more importantly, what decibel ranges put the listener at risk for injury.  The Mayo Clinic says that normal conversation reads at 60 decibels.  Webmd and The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASLHA) agree.   But I’m finding that 60 decibels simply does not happen in a public space, restaurant, or store, certainly not in New York City.  I know that New York City (or, at least, Manhattan) is busier and louder than most American cities and towns, but even in quieter places there is going to be a base level hum.  In Manhattan that hum is the sound of lots of feet pounding the pavement, sirens (far away and nearby), beeping horns and other street noise, bursts of laughter, etc.  Fortunately it appears that there is little or no risk of hearing injury if the decibel is reading does not pass 80.  The Mayo Clinic starts the risk range at 80 decibels (“Heavy city traffic, power lawn mower”), while Webmd states that decibel readings above 85 are harmful.  The AHSLA doesn’t identify the exact decibel range where injury can occur, but notes that noise levels are dangerous if:

  • You must raise your voice to be heard.
  • You can’t hear someone 3 feet away from you.
  • Speech around you sounds muffled or dull after you leave the noisy area.
  • You have pain or ringing in your ears (this is called “tinnitus”) after exposure to noise.

I’ve recently downloaded Faber Acoustical’s SoundMeter for my iPad mini and began checking the decibel reading of a variety of spaces to see if I could determine what decibel range is comfortable for me and what decibel reading signals the point where I begin to feel uneasy or irritable.  Long and short, anything up to 75 decibels is usually tolerable, but once 75 decibels is breached things change.  And if the noise level crosses 80 decibels, I reach for my musician’s ear plugs (they reduce sound by 25 decibels) or go from annoyed to very irritable quickly.  Very occasionally pain may follow.  Of course, the quality of the sound also plays a role, as I find that higher pitched, trebly sounds causes me to feel uneasy at lower decibel levels.  The reason for my inquiry will be clearer in the next post where I describe the guide that I am creating which aims to identify those comfortable, ear-friendly spaces that exist throughout the city.

Insidious indoor noise

Do you ever wonder why restaurants are so loud?  Don’t assume it’s due to poor design, because it may be deliberate.  Peggy Hernandez, writing for the Boston Globe, found that for some restaurant owners, striking the right noise level is key.  But while she found some restaurant owners who were addressing unnecessary noise by installing professional soundproofing, others, “aiming for a lively atmosphere,” actively encouraged the party atmosphere. “We wanted bustling energy, conviviality, and a party feel,” says Tony Maws, chef and owner of The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, in Somerville.”  Based on my experience, Maws is not alone,  But it seems odd that a restaurant owner would deliberately maintain a loud space when you consider that, “[t]he 2014 Zagat Boston Restaurants Survey found restaurant noise level to be the number-one irritatant about dining out.”  The Zagats survey added that “[o]ver 70 percent of those surveyed avoid restaurants that are too loud…[with] similar results in New York City.”  So why would restauranteurs turn up the volume, or ignore it, when noise level is a common complaint?

Cara Buckley, writing for the New York Times on Indoor noise in New York restaurants and retail stores, reported that “[s]ome customers like the loudness. Younger people can withstand loud music longer, while older ones may run from it, helping proprietors maintain a youthful clientele and a fresh image.”  Further, “[s]ome research has shown that people drink more when music is loud; one study found that people chewed faster when tempos were sped up.”  So to maintain a “fresh image” or make a few more dollars, some restaurant owners deliberately expose their customers and employees to damaging loud noise.  The damage is not limited to hyperacusis, tinnitus, or hearing loss, as the article notes, “repeated exposure to loud noise often damages hearing and has been linked to higher levels of stress, hypertension and heart disease.”

The article includes three paragraphs that highlight the problem facing those of us who want restaurants and other spaces to lower the volume.  Namely, there are customers who enjoy the din:

Recent changes in restaurant design have also increased sound levels. The trend of making restaurants look like brasseries and bars to resemble speakeasies has bred an abundance of hard surfaces that can reflect and amplify sound: ceramic tiles, concrete floors and tin ceilings. This despite the fact that one of the biggest customer complaints about restaurants, according to Zagat, is noise. Yet those who like noisy places said they were energizing and gave them a sense that they were where it’s at.

Maria Vasquez, 22, a design student who spends time at Lavo — home to the 96 decibel levels and migraine-afflicted waitress — said she found the cacophony there fun. Tiffany Trifilio, 26, a fashion analyst who frequents the Standard Hotel’s Biergarten, said the din made her feel part of the crowd. And Katherine Gold, 35, who often stays at home with her baby, reveled in Lavo’s noise one recent night. “I spend my days in my apartment and at Central Park,” she said. “I have enough quiet.”

Patrons of spin classes also said the din was part of the draw. The pounding music helped them forget they were exercising, they said, and made them feel they were reliving the club days of younger years.

Loud music is fun and invigorating for some.  Sadly, by the time the young women in the NY Times story begin to experience hearing loss, or go home one night with ringing in their ears that never goes away, it may be too late to do anything about it.

One way to stop this madness is to offer incentives to responsible business owners who monitor sound levels.  And there is no bigger incentive than knowing that attention to this one detail can drive more foot traffic through their doors.  To that end, keep an eye on this space.  In the next few months we will be posting reviews of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, parks, and other places around Manhattan where the focus will be on sound quality.  Food quality, service, and other factors are obviously important considerations when picking a restaurant, for example, but we will not be posting typical reviews.  Rather, at most each review will include a brief description about the quality of the food, drink, or goods offered, decor, and service of each reveiwed place, but the emphasis will be on a simple standard: can you have a conversation in the space without raising your voice.  Over time, we hope to have a map that offers many options for those seeking  reasonably quiet spaces in every neighborhood in Manhattan. 

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the article links.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.

Library song:

Sounds of the Bodleian Library

A library cannot be entirely silent.  The link above brings you to the Bodleian Library page that allows you to hear the sound of a variety of rooms and libraries.  The sounds–the squeak of a chair, a dropped pen, a suppressed sneeze–bounce off of the walls, some made of stone, others of wood, and are amplified by the surrounding silence, creating for each space a signature hum.  Enjoy.