When does sound become noise?

October 1, 2007 at 3:00 am 5 comments

Kim photoRecently, I’ve noted a sensitivity to noise. Maybe old age is setting in and I’m teetering towards joining the ranks of the crusty and cranky elderly. I was always able to shut out noise but now when I go to a shopping mall and sit down for a quiet cup of coffee at a cafe, invariably my solitude is fractured by a cacophony of mingling voices, children’s shrieks, and clanging metal shopping trolleys whizzing past.

It seems to me that noise has increased in contemporary society and that its encroachment on our silence is another example of invasion of privacy (yep, back onto my pet topic). Have you ever eavesdropped on people’s mobile phone calls? While you’re using your train ride home to relax and reflect or read, other passenger’s are enquiring into “what’s for dinner?” or catching up on returning calls and revealing some personal information that you really don’t want to hear. And trying to get some quiet time in your lunch hour is virtually impossible. If you duck off to buy your lunch, you enter some food hall awash with the noise of jostling office workers. If you take a stroll through the city streets, you’re ears are bombarded with boutiques advertising the latest sale via a screeching microphone attempting to catch the attention of passers-by. This is white noise – a combination of different sounds – human voices, loud music, fleeting snippets of conversation floating in and out.

When I arrive home, I am surrounded by the whispers and songs of native birds and the soft tinkling of water in the fish pond. In the morning, I am woken by the loud chortling of kookaburras and the mournful call of a black crow who regards our backyard as his territory.

So, when does sound become noise? Is noise simply unwanted sound? Is noise repetitive sound without the relief of silence? And what is silence?

I think it’s all about boundaries and the listener. A mosquito buzzing around is not as loud as say an aircraft flying over, yet the buzzing sound is probably unwelcome. Noise is unwanted, disturbing sound. In fact, the word ‘noise’ comes from the Latin nausea, meaning disgust or annoyance.  Noise pushes your boundary closer to yourself. You contract your personal boundary as you attempt to shut out the irritation factor. There’s an emotional aspect involved – you get a feeling of annoyance or irritability; you feel suffocated, you withdraw, you get stressed. Sound is when you agree to open your boundary and find pleasure in the things you can hear. You choose to hear. Noise is interference with your boundary; with sound you don’t put up the barriers and you’re more tolerant.

And then there’s silence, which basically is the absence of sound. But then there’s that Simon and Garfunkel song, The Sound of Silence, which stuffs up that definition! Does silence have a sound? I know that when I sit on my balcony listening to bird calls, I feel at peace. I feel calm and “grounded” as they say. I am silent, but surrounded by pleasant sounds that do not disturb, irritate or distract me. So am I sitting in silence? is silence the absence of noise that irritants and aggravates? And because I think that sitting around listening to birds is pleasant but you might find the bird calls high-pitched and jarring – does this mean that silence is subjective? And how long does silence need to last before it is classified as silence? 5 minutes?

When we talk about silence, are we meaning an inner tranquility, an inner silence? I don’t think silence is about having a hissy fit over the noise level in contemporary society and finding some deserted island to live on uninterrupted by humans. This is solitude not silence (or maybe even loneliness).

In Buddhism, it is said that whenever someone asked Buddha to explain the Truth, he invariably answered by Silence. Not because he didn’t know the answer, but because of the deep connection in Buddhism between Truth and Silence. It is said that Buddha remained wordless when asked this question – noiseless. And in the Christian tradition, silence is said to be the language of God. So is silence about having a quiet mind: free of troubles, thoughts, questions, doubts and conflicts?

I think there’s a great degree of difference between quiet silence, unquiet silence and emptiness. With the latter two being hallmarks of today’s noisy society. Okay not sure where I am with my thoughts on this: so I’m off to contemplate (and is contemplation a form of silence??).


Entry filed under: Privacy, Reflections. Tags: , , .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kyle  |  October 1, 2007 at 5:45 am

    Try listening to all the noise/sounds around, while your in your comfy chair. Breath deeply through the nose, continue to listen to all the sounds, the humming of a fridge, the neighbours, birds, all. When you can hear the heart pumping, you are in a meditative state.

  • 2. Cooking  |  October 1, 2007 at 7:02 am

    I think we perceive certain sounds as noise, particularly when you yourself are not a participant involved in what is causing the sound. For instance if I am driving in my car, and I rev the engine a little, it can sometimes sound like music. On the other hand when I am walking along the street and I hear people revving their engines going around corners, it is definitely noise to me. Needless to say, I never rev my engine as I have gotten older as I now find it slightly annoying.

  • 3. Oohlala  |  December 6, 2007 at 4:04 pm

    “Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself and know that everything in life has a purpose.” -Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

  • 4. jm  |  March 31, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    hi, i really love your post. is it okay for me to use this as reference for my ongoing ethnography paper? credits will surely be given.

    • 5. thinkingshift  |  April 1, 2009 at 12:20 am

      Thank you very much.
      You can use this as reference as long as it is credited.


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