On top of the many grievous issues facing our world today, it may seem as though sound pollution is somewhere down the list, but after reading Ed Yong’s bestselling book An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us I have come away impressed how critically important all the senses are for every animal, including us. Yong reveals to the reader all the miraculous ways that living things—birds, fish, mammals, even plants—experience what he calls their Umwelt, the world of their senses, and how limited our own human sense organs are compared to other creatures. Many birds can see in the ultraviolet spectrum, as well as in color, so they have four color cones in their eyes—red, blue, yellow, and ultraviolet—whereas we only have three. What to us is a plain brown thrush is to them a bird of brilliantly colored plumage.
Where we see trees and plants in various shades of green, birds can see millions of color combinations we are completely blind to. Elephants can sense subsonic vibrations in their feet, and communicate with each other over long distances that way. Bees can smell with organs in their feet. Some fish sense and communicate with electrical currents. It’s humbling to read about the vast intricacy of nature and of the sensory world of living beings.
One takeaway from all this information is how delicate and fragile these sensory worlds are, and how much the impact of human civilization has interfered and damaged creatures’ ability to communicate, reproduce, and survive. Birds in cities and towns must sing louder and longer to attract a mate and warn others of their kind of nearby predators. Fish in the sea are made deaf by the rumble and roar of passing ships, often from hundreds of miles away. And we humans, without realizing it, are losing the ability to hear subtle sounds and vibrations that untold millenia of evolution have given us the ability to sense. Intelligence and the ability to understand our environment and other people in it is not just a matter of cognition and thinking; it is also dependent on sensing. And the sound pollution of automobiles, airplanes, and industrial machinery is making us increasingly deaf not only to the sounds of nature, but the subtle vibrations of other people. Sound pollution is making us stupid and we don’t even know it.
When I was a freshman in college and overwhelmed by the demands of college life in a noisy urban setting, I took to wearing earplugs wherever I went, to drown out the sounds of traffic and crowds. It wasn’t until my friends wanted to know why I was yelling at them that I realized that earplugs weren’t the solution. Fast forward fifty years and now we have untold millions of people reproducing a modern version of my earplug experiment, walking around with earbuds in their ears, blocking out all external sounds and listening (probably too loudly) to music or podcasts. The danger of hearing damage from this habit is so real that my own smartphone actually warns me whenever I turn the volume up not to turn it up too much.
One anecdote from Yong’s book illustrates how inured we have become to ambient noise. He tells of a researcher friend who carried highly sensitive sound equipment to remote locations, such as national parks and hiking trails, and record the incidence of such incursions as airplanes flying overhead. He asks passersby how many airplanes they can remember hearing recently, and typically they answer three or four. The true answer on one occasion, according to this researcher, was 26. This same research also reports that the typical European lives their daily life in a sound environment equivalent to a rainstorm. Think of how little of the subtle sound landscape they can really hear! That’s true for all of us, I think.
These days the only way to experience true silence is to enter a hermetically sealed soundproof room. I have friends who have tried this as volunteers in an experiment, and they report that the experience is truly unsettling and eerie. They say it is “out of this world,” which of course has it backwards. That silence is the way the whole world once was in remote places, and what we consider normal noisy life is actually what is “out of this world.”
So what, you might ask. Isn’t this the price of living in the modern world? Would we really want to go back to horse drawn carts and hand-winched machinery just to restore a sense of natural sound? It’s a false equivalency, since there is no way our overcrowded, machine-driven world is going to go back to that time—although during the Covid crisis ambient sound levels did measurably go down. At least, we should at least be aware of what we have lost. A Western teacher of Tibetan Buddhism once told me about a Lama she knew who had grown up in a remote area in Nepal, who felt that the noise level in the modern world was so intrusive and distracting that it was impossible to really meditate, at least not in the way he was trained. He may have been particularly sensitive to urban clamor because of where he grew up. But we can make modest efforts to think of quietude as a nutrient that our psyches need for mental and spiritual health, and seek it out any way we can. We could take to sometimes wearing noise-canceling earphones without a soundtrack, simply to cancel out ambient sound. Or we could, from our phones, feed in subtle sounds of nature from a white noise app; I have tried that, and some of the apps have pretty good whispery sounds—of breezes and grass, for example. As a musician and composer—someone who crafts sound professionally—I want to recognize that silence is sound too.
John Cage, the experimental American composer, once wrote a piece for piano entitled “Four Minutes Thirty Three Seconds.” The piece consists of the musician sitting down at the piano, starting a stopwatch, and doing absolutely nothing for that amount of time. Cage explained that “The piece consists of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed.” But the piece could also be a statement about the inspirational quality of pure silence.
Either way, the piece was a sensation in 1952. When it was first performed, another composer was heard to remark, “I wish I had written that piece.”