Reading Momus’ praise of quiet, I found myself thinking about the role of (relative) silence in my life. When I was younger, my need to hear music was nearly compulsive: my clock radio’s alarm was set to play the radio when it went off, I’d carry a Walkman with headphones with me when walking or taking a bus, my car radio was always on – and when I got home, I’d turn on some music before nearly anything else.
It may have been a 1974 Opel (pumpkin-colored) with only AM radio that began to cure me. It would have been more cool to credit Brian Eno (also with German connections) but less true. Anyway: there was nothing I wanted to hear on AM radio, and it was a pain to bring along a tape player into the car (although I used to do it – even bringing a boombox along on camping trips, or for backyard picnics and the like), so I simply turned the radio off. And just listening to whatever sound happened to be in the world, even if that was noisy traffic, became a different kind of experience.
Now, I find increasingly often that I don’t put on music, even when I can, just so I can have some time with quiet. This tendency is, unsurprisingly, more pronounced when I’m besieged with loud noises – but not only then. And interestingly, I think it’s allowed me to become more skilled at maintaining a sort of inner quiet even when outside is noisy. Last weekend, one day I remember a carful of screaming children (okay: there was only one screaming child) insisting on the louder louder playing of disco music, and then we got to a bowling alley. (No surprise, one of us actually needed to retire outside temporarily to collect herself.) What was odd was that the noise of the bowling alley actually felt quiet to me. Perhaps that was by contrast, or because volume aside, there’s something quiet-like about the distant and regular, resonant falling of pins, the gathering hum as the balls roll down the lanes, and so on.
For any number of reasons, though, we tend to favor loudness. Clubs and bars sometimes are designed expressly to maximize noise, as if volume is directly equivalent to “excitement” (which equates to desirability and popularity). There’s a restaurant/bar in town with an excellent menu and a nice environment – except that its acoustics seem designed to amplify whatever noise is present, such that even a roomful of people conversing at normal volume echoes and reverberates upon itself, making conversation uncomfortable. And for me, if I can’t hear well what people are saying, and if I have to nearly shout to make myself heard, I tend to withdraw and become a bit depressed. Shouting becomes physically uncomfortable, if only because I think I unthinkingly damage my throat in so doing. But I suspect it’s also depressing because it’s disappointing: generally, if I’m in a room with a lot of people I know, it’s because I want to talk with them. This is one reason that, in a group, I’m unlikely to prefer going to see a band: you can’t talk over the band (although it astonishes me how many people try, resorting to shouting directly in your ear if you can’t otherwise hear them), and even the between-sets music must be pumped to maximum volume (see the “excitement” factor, above).
The sad part of all this is that I suspect a lot of these places use volume quite knowingly as a prophylactic against conversation – or rather, against anyone’s realization that they have nothing to say to the people they’re with, and nothing they particularly want to hear from those people. You can see this most clearly, perhaps, in bars catering to single college-aged people – who perhaps can be excused from being wildly interesting due to their youth. But I think it’s a general cultural thing: the notion that noise is exciting, and desirable, and that quiet is boring. In my cynical moments I think that the fear of quiet is the fear of hearing the crickets chirping emptily away in the confines of one’s own brain, or of the realization that one couldn’t entertain oneself for a moment in the absence of external stimuli.
At the same time, I’m not quite ready to go entirely unplugged. I’m also not sure that I think volume, or discord (which often creates an impression of relatively greater loudness), is necessarily an expression of aggression (as discussed on another thread over at Click Opera. Related to this, you could chart different effects of loudness, discord, and distance along varying axes: sure, something that sounds loud, discordant, and close probably does convey aggressiveness…but what about something that sounds loud but very far away? Or something discordant, close, but very quiet? The latter, I’d argue, conveys a sense of delicacy all the finer for its discord. (Actually, we might need another axis, I’m not sure what to call it: I can distinguish, in my mind’s ear, between a sound that seems both loud and faraway but plays loudly, and a sound that seems both loud and faraway but plays quietly. The first is clangorous, the second can have entirely different effect, including being rather haunting, depending whether other, closer (and/or quieter) sounds are presented at nearly the same volume.
Perhaps some of the above relates to the way humans, generally, hear loudness rather differently from the way equipment measures it. Pick out the loudest part of a recording by ear: it may well be not even close to the peak in volume as viewed in a wavefile editing program like Audacity. And audio engineers have known for a long time that we often hear the contrast between loud and soft more by other acoustical cues than by actual, measurable volume: music might be highly compressed (and, overall, sound louder than music with a similar peak level but lower overall average level) but those cues tell us that a solo acoustic guitar lightly plucked is quieter than a full rock band with distorted guitars…even when the actual levels of each section might in fact be equivalent.
As with many of our senses, we’re easily fooled.
(You didn’t really expect an mp3 with this post, did you?)