Added 15 July 2000

Noise Annoys

Music, Car Stereos and Pollution in the 21st century


Ever sat fuming in a traffic jam unable to escape from an unpleasant vibrating sensation throbbing through your body, caused by the bass speakers of the car behind you?

Ever sat on a train trying to read a book or just chill out, but irritated by the sizzling sound coming from somebody's headphones?

Ever had a one-off TV programme spoilt by rumbling noises through the wall of your semi?

If so, you're not alone.

The abuse of freedom

Unwanted noise or music has probably always been a problem since people first started using ram's horns as trumpets. What was one person's religious celebration was probably another's godless noise. Jazz musicians living in tenement blocks trying to rehearse the drums or the trombone have probably always been wary of antagonising the neighbours. Since the development of electricity and amplification, however, the problem was always going to be bigger. This would not have mattered so much if the same adherence to social mores and conventions that exist in more traditional societies had remained in Western towns and cities.

Unfortunately, the increase in personal potential for louder music has not been accompanied by an increase in a sense of personal responsibility. Thus freedom has come to be seen by most people as purely the right to do what I like, regardless of other people. If this means the freedom to play my own music as loud as like, then too bad for other people. Some adherents to this view regard themselves as cool, or chillin': others just simply don't care. If you don't like the music I'm pumping out on my home stereo, my car stereo, my Walkman or even my guitar amplifier.... too bad.

To be fair, this is not a modern phenomenon. When I was growing up and hanging around guitar shops many years ago, one displayed a poster which proudly declared, "If it's too loud, you're too old." One person who might be able to offer pertinent comment on that is guitarist Pete Townsend of the Who. The Who set a record for playing one gig at 138 decibels, if my memory serves me correctly, and were always renowned as a loud band, even by the standards of seventies groups such as Led Zeppelin. Today Townsend's hearing is so damaged that on stage he has to be shielded by special screens, to protect his ears from the rest of the musicians. Was it worth it?

The issues

There are really three outstanding issues that need to be addressed here: the risk to the listener's hearing, the effect on other people, and the moral issue of selfishness or consideration for others.

By now I think little needs to be said about the issue of damage to the human ear, yet it is astonishing that with over thirty years' of experience of heavily amplified rock music, not to mention the scientific studies of the effects of industrial noise on workers, so many people seem ignorant or careless of the danger. Ironically enough, rock musicians now seem actually more aware of the threat than many of their audiences: one professional guitarist I know puts cotton wool in his ears at some gigs to protect them. When you're young it may seem cool to stand with your head practically inside the bass bins at a gig, and indeed when you're young your ears may survive one night of such treatment. But it is highly doubtful that they could survive several years' worth without some loss of hearing. The danger to hearing, however, may be even greater from headphones (eg on personal stereos) or music units in confined spaces, such as cars. Having played with amplification both indoors and outdoors, I can testify that sound with plenty of open air to spread out in is a lot less painful than if cooped up within a small area. Now consider the small space of most cars, and the fact that many car stereo systems are almost as powerful as proper guitar amplifiers, and remember that most of us spend far more time in our cars than we do at gigs. The problem of car stereos is also enhanced by the current popularity for a lot of heavy bass, which seems to carry more punch. Personal stereos are not capable of anywhere near the same output, but this is offset by the fact that the sound is transmitted directly into the ear canals without any intermediate dissipation via the air.

The effect on other people may seem a surprising factor, but it should be taken into consideration. I am thinking here particularly of those forms of music which might be considered "aggressive" (which is not to pass an aesthetic judgement on them: music can be aggressive and still be good). Punk and heavy metal have traditionally been considered aggressive forms of music, but ironically I cannot say I have ever heard much of either genre being pumped overzealously from car stereos or Walkmen. The current genre of choice that seems to be played most loudly most often is the more contemporary drums 'n' bass, house and other electronic- or computer-driven music. The problem is that aggressive music, played aggressively loud, can induce feelings of hostility and anger in those who are forced to put up with it. Most train journeys will show a passenger listening to an overloud personal stereo attracting a series of glances from others that range from mildly disproving to often sheer hatred. It's not just drums 'n' bass, however: any music played loudly enough can be intensely annoying, especially if those forced to listen to it dislike the song, artist or genre anyway. In a celebrated court case a few years ago, a woman in the UK was jailed for a few days after the court had heard how she had played Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" over and over again at top volume, driving her neighbour mad. In South London at about the same time, there was a shooting incident caused by a dispute over noise caused by stereo music. And during the US presidency of George Bush senior, US troops in Panama pumped out the music of various artists such as David Bowie in an attempt to wear down the besieged General Noriega. The effect on animals in the vicinity, incidentally, should also be considered: many have sensitive hearing.

This obviously ties in with the third point, that of consideration for other people. There is a time and a place for everything, and what may be appropriate in one setting may not be right in another. For example, if you go to some public houses, you can't complain if the music is too loud, because usually the pub has decided beforehand that that is going to be their entertainment policy. The best way to express your disapproval is to take your custom elsewhere. Similarly a reasonable amount of volume is probably OK within the confines of a house if all those who live there are happy with it. The point of selfishness arises when the stereo starts coming through your neighbour's walls or ceiling. Within the cramped confines of the public transport system users of personal stereos are inevitably going to be in a situation where most of those present are unlikely to share their like of their music, and in any case the noise that spills out through Walkmen headphones is often distorted and tinny. In this case the decent thing to do is to try to keep your music to yourself and your headphones as much as possible. (To be fair, the bigger noise irritation on most public transport now is the indiscriminate user of the mobile phone).

Really, the whole problem can be summed up in the words of Jesus: "Do as to others as you would have them do to you." Ask yourself as you're playing with the volume knob: would I like it if someone was playing their form of music at this level? Think of a form of music you probably don't care for, or even detest. Now ask yourself how you would feel stuck in a room with it being pumped out at the level you are playing your own music at. Then adjust the volume accordingly.

[The author is a practicing rock musician, currently playing bass guitar].

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