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June 11, 2010

Noise – or is it?

by soundlandscapes

Having reached a certain age, I now reluctantly admit to being a fully paid-up member of that not so exclusive club of “Grumpy Old Men”. To qualify for membership it is necessary to be irritated by almost anything and everything however irrational that irritation might be. People who walk up escalators irritate me. Hotel receptionists who answer the telephone while checking me in irritate me. People who send those wretched newsletters instead of Christmas cards irritate me. People who break off a conversation with me to answer their mobile phone irritate me. TV advertisements irritate me. CNN irritates me. Noise irritates me.

Noise, according to my dictionary, is “a sound of any kind, especially when loud, confused, indistinct or disagreeable”.

The same dictionary refers to noise pollution as, “environmental noise of sufficient loudness to be annoying, distracting or physically harmful”.

I think most people would agree that noise pollution is on the increase and, although it’s sometimes difficult to define precisely what constitutes noise pollution, people generally recognise it when they hear it and conclude that it is a bad thing. Defining what constitutes “noise” on the other hand can be more problematic.

I live in Paris, one of the most visited cities in the world. Tourists come here to sample all the delights that this wonderful city has to offer. They do not come here to listen to the traffic noise which is constant and almost impossible to escape from. I live close to the Bois de Boulogne a former Royal hunting ground and now a vast area of trees, lakes and greenery. One might think it possible to gain some respite from the sound of the internal combustion engine here but no, it is not possible. I know that because I’ve done experiments to prove it. I have taken my sound recorder into the depths of the Bois de Boulogne during both the day and the night and all the recordings I have made contain some traffic noise.

So, traffic noise is a bad thing. Or is it? I once saw a person knocked down by a car, a Toyota Prius. This car is a hybrid and was running on the battery at the time and consequently was completely silent. Thankfully, apart from the odd bruise, the person was not hurt but their first words upon recovering their composure were, “I just didn’t hear it coming”. Maybe some degree of traffic noise is necessary if only for the safety of pedestrians.

Being unable to escape the sound of traffic noise I have decided to capitalise on it. Being a street sound recordist I have recorded traffic noise on the basis that it forms part of the tapestry of life here in Paris. I have been surprised by the variation of sounds the traffic makes and by the transformation of traffic “noise” into traffic “sounds”. What one hears as simply a constant background noisy irritation can, upon careful listening, turn into something quite interesting – a melange of lorries, buses, vans, cars, motorcycles and screaming motor-scooters each with their own distinctive sound. I often think that it would be inetresting to stand by a busy street and record the sound of the traffic and then compare that to a recording made in the same place ten years ago and then every ten years before that since 1900. To my knowledge, that particular experiment has never been done but one can’t help thinking how interesting the result would be.

Having said all that, I do subscribe to the view that traffic “noise” is a significant contributor to the sound pollution that we all have to endure today. However, think of steam trains, also major polluters in every sense in their day. Today, recordings of steam trains are much sought after and are listened to with great nostaligia even by those of us who qualify to be “Grumpy Old Men”. Will today’s motor car become tomorrow’s steam train?

Maybe “noise” is just “sound” in the wrong place and in the wrong quantity. What one person hears as noise just might be an interesting or even beautiful sound to others.

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