Sound and silence

I have never tolerated loud noise. As a child, I would cover my ears when someone was using a hammer or power tool; today I wear earplugs whilst using the vacuum. I’m just very sensitive to sound.

Urban environments are full of sound; they are not full of sound, of course, in the same sense that a forest is. The city is full of inescapable noise. This is mainly because cities have become places for cars to congregate and traverse, not places for people to live and walk about in. Pedestrians are usually pushed off to the side surrounding traffic and get secondary consideration.

The school is a good 45 minutes to an hour walk from my flat; I’ve been walking it often. However, unless I zigzag through back-streets (which I do sometimes), the most direct route is filled with traffic (though it’s a generally pleasant walk nonetheless). I wanted to listen to music or lectures on the way; but, unless I wear my big noise cancelling headphones (which are a bit silly looking on the street), there isn’t a ready way to do this. “Regular” headphones would have to be turned up way too loud and make even more noise in my head. So I bought a pair of in-ear monitors (these are basically earplugs with headphones built in); they reduce the outside noise by about 28db and allow one to listen to quiet music even on the insanely loud Glasgow Metro. But…

The whole point of the program I’m doing is examining how we connect to and interact with our environments and the people around us. When I lived in South Carolina, nearly everybody one passed on the street would make eye contact and say hello. One could expect to dole out and receive many dozens of hellos strolling down the avenue. In Philadelphia, for safety reasons if nothing else, one did not make eye-contact. It might be perceived as a threat or an invitation for hassle. Here, it’s not as if the people aren’t friendly, they are just doing something else than connecting with others. They are hurriedly on their way to the place that they aren’t; they are talking to someone on their mobile who is at the place they will be after they go to the place they are now not; they are listening to music or sounds from some other place than the place they currently are.

It is the rare person who quite wants to be where he or she is at the moment; this is especially true on the street. We are careful to create our own personal space and guard it carefully. My sensitivity is noise; I’ve taken measure to block it out and cover it with quiet. However, have I consequently blocked out the people and world around me? Should I face that noise straight on? Or would it just gradually deafen me till I no longer understood subtle sounds? I wonder if the loutish people one sometimes sees in the city have forgotten how to hear quietly. They shout to bridge the distance between.

My fear is that I will not hear the necessary shouting of people around me (not meaning this literally, though one must be extra cautious of traffic if it can’t be heard). We become more distant from our actual surroundings; can I hear the world around me if I’m listening to a symphony or does that make the contrast so much more apparent?