The anti-art of noise: Exploring the opposite of music

Ati Metwaly , Sunday 15 Oct 2017

The modern life we have created is soaked in noise pollution. Understanding the harmful effects of high volumes on our mental, emotional and physical health is the first step in correcting the problem

John Baldessari Beethoven's Trumpet (With Ear) Opus #133 (Photo: AFP)

In today’s world we are harangued by the cacophony of decibels entering our auditory systems. The modern life we have created is so deeply soaked in high volumes its sounds challenge our mental, emotional and physical health.

There are different sources of loud sounds, including urban traffic, heavy transport vehicles, construction works, market places, farm machines in rural areas, etc. They are referred to as “noise pollution”, a broad definition of which would be a noise without value unwanted by the recipient. Paradoxically, such unwanted sounds are our progeny.

On the other hand, we are also exposed to other sources of loud sounds from radio, television, home surround system, home appliances or music inside the car. Most of these within a certain volume range are are not harmful to our ears and health, unlike high levels of decibels at popular music concerts or from headphones. Whether we like to think of ourselves as victims of “noise pollution” or we are satisfied with such self-inflicted loudness, the damaging results remain the same.

According to the 2015 report issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO), “1.1 billion teenagers and young adults are at risk of hearing loss due to the unsafe use of personal audio devices, including smartphones, and exposure to damaging levels of sound at noisy entertainment venues such as nightclubs, bars and sporting events.” This also means that every second person aged 12-35 is at high risk of hearing loss.

One UK online medical advisor explains that “people with good hearing have tiny hair cells that line the inner ear and these transmit signals to the brain, which are interpreted as sound. Listening to loud music can flatten these hairs, and although they normally spring back into place, noise damage over a long period can cause them to snap. These hairs do not regrow and so any damage is permanent.”

The health conditions can include different levels of hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and lowered frequency discrimination, which is common among the musicians exposed to loud sounds for too long. Other medical concerns include an increase in blood pressure, migraine, colitis, ulcers and even heart trouble. According to Alex Korb, a professor of neuroscience, “noise causes stress, and the prefrontal cortex is perhaps the brain region most susceptible to stress,” he writes in the May 2012 issue of Psychology Today. The damage to emotional health incorporates increased aggression, a decrease in helpful behaviour, reduction of motivation, task performance and reduction of cognitive development in children.

The WHO report explains that anything above 80 decibles (dB) is hazardous and exposure to an excess of 85 dB for eight hours or 100dB for 15 minutes poses a threat of permanent hearing damage. An optimum noise level recommended by the WHO is 45 dB by day and 35 dB or less by night (our ears cannot be shut down and they continue to absorb sounds, even when we are asleep). This is not an easy target to meet but maybe understanding the numbers can help us work towards it.

An average level of dBs in a calm household measures approximately 50dB during the day, a conversational speech one metre away can reach 70 dB, similar to the slightly higher level of a radio music contained within one closed room. The sound of a busy city street starts at 80dB, shouting at close range reaches 100 dB, a medium sized rock gig falls anywhere between 85 and 120 dB depending on where one stands in relation to the speakers, standard headphones can generate 110 dB, the equivalent to a pneumatic drill 10 metres away. The sound of a gunshot or an explosion provides a one-time exposure to an intense “impulse” sound, which when experienced at the range of one metre can deliver 140-190 dB and most likely lead to immediate hearing damage.

Despite those numbers and the large evidence provided by social, neurological, psychological, medical and even economic researchers, the threat of noise is still ignored by most communities. While some countries or communities implement laws regulating noise levels, many others are still reluctant to take action or unaware of the harm resulting from high volume. Unfortunately, we cannot mute the busy city or industrial sounds, we cannot give up on all entertainment venues, but we can remain alert to many sources of loud sounds and take corrective actions whenever possible.

With modernity providing many reasons for loud noises, sometimes I am baffled by the high volume voluntarily self-inflicted by people. Why is there such extremely loud music at a children’s birthday party? Why would a young person pump the volume up inside their car? Why is the music so loud in many clothing stores? Why do some schools use excessively loud music during the morning line or in their performances? The questions are many yet the answers are not black and white. The answers braid factors linked to cultures, social identities, personal belief systems, educational and economic levels. There is no clear classification of the reasons within specific cultures or communities; we can however look into a few general motives behind the relevant issue.

Scientists point to loud music working as a strong stimulant. It increases heart rate and body temperature. No wonder, at the gym, you will find most people wearing headphones: not only does music provide a rhythmic support, it is also an effective stimulus. Loud music makes some people feel more confident, or more “cool”; they experience an illusion of power. This is obvious in the case of drivers or home parties with excessively loud music. But it can be a vicious circle: while music boosts self-esteem, the overstimulation eventually leads to anxiety, a cornerstone of low self-esteem.

Listening to loud music as part of blocking out the world is often used as a self-medication for stress. Loud music releases endorphins which act similarly to drugs in relieving stress. Dopamine, one of the chemicals involved in pleasure and pain, is released at moments of anticipation and climax. In her article on the loud music phenomenon (published in Take Part), A. Wolfe quotes Clara Ko, a music therapist saying that teens use loud music as a kind of pain relief. “Listening to loud music may provide comfort or distraction to a constant process of growth. I would compare it to a music therapy technique in pain and symptom management,” Ko notes.

On the other hand, it is a fact that playing a song or an orchestral piece louder allows us to capture more detail, yet this is also why statistically many sound engineers suffer hearing damage, particularly tinnitus. While the school uses loud music to boost students’ alertness, the results have a counter-productive effect on young brains, often leaving them more prone to aggression and anxiety.

It has also been proved that loud music at the clothing stores disrupts the thinking process and creates a shopping pace. Some studies revealed that this encouraged people — especially women — to shop faster while the staff also proves more dynamic. In commercial terms, the benefits outweigh the very few customers who will leave annoyed by the high volume.

Examples, reasons and hazards are countless. Our personal belief systems, upbringing, relation with others as well as awareness of the hazards, all contribute to our choice of the amount of decibles. And, even if the researchers shower us with evidence of the harms that accompany loud sounds, the evidence can be ignored.

The situation is very similar to understanding the harmful effects of tobacco on our health. It took anti-tobacco lobbying a few decades before bans on smoking started being implemented, and they are still far from being effective all around the world. It will probably take many years, if not decades, for similar convictions in relation to noise pollution and self-inflicted noise. 


This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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