Silent Nights, Noisy Nights

Wednesday, December 28, 2016 - 08:57 AM

High sound levels can be harmful to hearing. (rich_pickler/Flickr)

In this year-end period, even in busy urban environments, it is possible to suddenly experience the blessings of quietness that elude us for most of the year. We might extol the beauty of a silent night, yet we accept so much noise — a sort of omnipresent din — in our midst that tranquility and calm have become luxuries we have sacrificed in our modern lives. This is bad for our health and also bad for the spirit.

"The soul is a creature of silence,” says Arkel in Pelleas et Mélisande.

That I am a sensitive man should not surprise you. I revel in my very acute senses and have prioritized them in making choices in my life. I have always gone to great lengths to protect my senses and never assume they are invulnerable.

Our five senses inform our knowledge about so much in our world and feed that wonderful sixth sense known as intuition. But there is a distinct difference among the senses in that three of them — sight, touch and taste — can go unused if one wishes. But the other two — hearing and smell — operate whether you like it or not and are the ones that can provide great pleasure, but also cause great suffering.

Hearing is a gift that we must prize and protect. If we cannot hear, we cannot listen and that is a tragedy. Because I am eager to protect my hearing, I make every effort to avoid loud places. One way of doing this is an app on my smartphone that is a decibel meter. On it, the threshold between safe and dangerous is 70 decibels, although it is possible to tolerate 75 decibels more readily and for a longer time than, say, 85 decibels. Some experts say that we enter the risk range at 80 decibels.

To give you a sense of the average decibel count for certain sounds, according to estimates by the National Institute on Deafness and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health: whispering is 30 decibels; average conversation is 60; a washing machine 78; heavy city traffic 80-90; a snowmobile or hand drill 100; a chainsaw or rock concert 110; an ambulance siren 120; and a jet engine at takeoff is 140, which is considered the pain threshold.

In my case, I experience pain when I have prolonged exposure to sound at 85-90 decibels. My ears start to throb and the pain radiates to my jaw and I get what feels like a toothache. In some cases I even develop nausea as a result.

It is important to point out that beautiful music or horrible noise occurring at the same decibel level can both do damage.

I avoid most restaurants because we have come to accept noise as part of the dining experience. I feel very sorry for servers and staff who work long shifts in such din. It is terrible for their health. Public transport conveyances in New York are hideously loud. In fact, our buses are often louder than the subway. Sanitation trucks that grind garbage at all hours of the day and night are completely unnecessary. Other cities gather garbage in quiet plastic bins and trash is not pulverized on streets where people live.

Sirens are louder than ever. I know this because 20 or 30 years ago I never heard sirens when I was inside Carnegie Hall or a Broadway theater. Now I always hear outside sirens, even though most Broadway shows are amplified.

What prompted this article was my recent attendance at a performance of Holiday Inn, presented by Roundabout Theatre at Studio 54. The production is an absolute delight, with a talented cast singing blue-chip Irving Berlin songs and dancing up a storm. The direction, costumes and sets were great. The only problem was that the show was unbelievably, painfully LOUD.

When one cast member spoke and sang, the amplification brought him to 93 decibels. When full cast and band performed, the volume rose to 110. (In contrast, when I attended the unamplified Nabucco at the Met, with orchestra, chorus and four soloists at full cry in the first act, the decibel count was only 82.) At the intermission of Holiday Inn I spoke to a technician who referred me to a nearby staff member who contacted the house manager. I was offered a change in seats, but the volume still would have been horrific. The manager communicated that the decision would be up to the stage manager. I have worked in enough theaters in my life to tell you that this was a genteel brush-off because that is not the person who controls volume in a show. These choices are made in a rehearsal period and the stage manager does what has already been arranged.

The way we hear is not understood by most people. Some of the causes of hearing loss are behavioral and preventable.

Hearing loss is a widespread problem in the workplace, as documented in a 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control. On Dec. 24, there was a report on NPR that American hearing loss has declined somewhat, although some of this is due to the disappearance of jobs in noisy environments. In my view, unemployment is not a good cure for hearing loss; we must devote more effort to reducing noise in all settings.

Monona Rossol, an industrial hygienist who is one of my favorite guests on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show, wrote to me, “There is evidence that noise levels raise blood pressure, heart rate, and have other physiological effects on people and animals. The question that cannot be answered by the animal studies is whether or not the effects are due to the noise itself or if it is the effect of a perceived danger associated with the noise. And that may also be a complicating factor in the human data.”

I believe that constant noise or even pleasant sounds at high volume represent a serious threat to our health and we ignore this in public policy. In the new year I will investigate this topic further and you will hear from me again soon.


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Comments [9]

K Murphy

This past August I had a sudden loss of hearing in one ear and an echo chamber in the other. Luckily, I didn't wait to see if it would clear on its own. Within two days I saw a hearing specialist who put me on prednisone right away. I was lucky that my hearing returned within two weeks. The doctor emphasized that it was fortunate I came in so soon. If you have a sudden hearing loss see a specialist ASAP. The longer you wait the less chance you'll recover.

Dec. 30 2016 07:46 PM

I once asked management at my gym to please lower the volume. When they asked why, I told them that it was overpowering the symphony orchestra I was trying to listen to on my portable CD player.


Dec. 29 2016 11:38 AM
pam from Westchester

Yes, yes, YES! All of these comments! I carry earplugs with me always and frequently use them in performances, especially when the music is recorded. TVs blaring in waiting rooms, "background" music everywhere, everything mentioned in all the comments drive me nuts. I've been known to turn around and walk out of stores which blare incessant rock. Some years ago the NY Times restaurant reviewer actually left a restaurant mid-meal and due to the ambient sound level which caused conversation to be impossible. And it only seems to be getting worse. When will common sense prevail?

Dec. 29 2016 11:03 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Fine article. Thank you.
I no longer go to wedding receptions
because of the loud so-called music. The last reception I went to
I could not even have a decent conversation with some people I
had not seen in years. That is when I decided, NO.
Happy New Year

Dec. 29 2016 07:24 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I've had tinnitus for years and only listen to classical music and opera fairly loud, but I limit my exposure to noise and unwanted sound input as much as possible. The reality is that some of the annoyances we can control and others we can't. Some of the former unwanted sounds include all t.v. commercials that I mute instantly, as well as those disgusting pounding rhythms rather than musical selections that most if not all t.v. stations have as re-joiners before or after commercials. And why must every commercial or public service announcement have a musical background? I guess there's not much we can do to stop the ongoing music....rock and roll if that's what it's called today... from blaring forth in restaurants, grocery stores and pharmacies, but the jingles --- if that's what they're called --- eminating from smartphones that we're subjected to from each other while we're captive in doctors' offices (to cite personal experiences) just drive me crazy. I wish they were never invented; and I wish all telephones be they land lines or wireless only had bell-ringing sounds.

Dec. 29 2016 05:06 AM
Stephanie Cheney from Maine

What I find so disturbing is the unnecessary noise in public places. I've become quite assertive about asking for music turn downs in restaurants, muting televisions in waiting rooms etc. Even worse is a combination of sounds/music which if heard separately might be lovely but when combined create cacophony.

Dec. 28 2016 07:30 PM
Cathleen Fox from London, England

It's a nightmare - don't even start me!!! It's impossible to go anywhere, without having to shout, as, even when the people who work in bars think that the music "isn't too loud", they don't realise that even "quiet" music, combined with hard surfaces, increases the overall background volume, necessitating shouting. For women's voices, this is a nightmare - ask any Ear Nose Throat surgeon. Also, even busses and tubes have noisy air-conditioning systems, which massively increase the overall background noise. Where I live in central-ish London, I can hear that the hum of the traffic is louder than it used to be, because of all the busses with their pointless and very loud airconditioning machines on-board. I.e. it's not just hearing that's affected; it's people's VOICES, throats and nervous-systems that are affected.

Dec. 28 2016 04:17 PM
Ruth Schueler from Jerusalem, Israel

Fred, you are so right. I can ride a bus, and hear very clearly what people listen to with their earphones. I am 71 years old and my hearing is still very good. I am a birder, and this is very important for me. So I try to protect my ability to hear well with the help of earplugs when the noise is too loud.

Dec. 28 2016 03:44 PM
James Robiscoe from Sleepy Hollow, NY

Thank you, Mr. Plotkin, for shining a light on this distressing fact of modern living. shaping one's choices to avoid the pain of noises is a necessity for many of us that social laws seem to care about. Audiologists can't say that tininnitus is a result of the plague of noise, but I suspect what I live with is. It's as though what I tried to avoid became the curse I must permanently carry.

Dec. 28 2016 12:53 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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