Turn The Volume to Zero: Why Silence is Important

Feeling stressed out? It might be the effect of prolonged, passive exposure to sound.

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Aug 10 2018, 12:53pm

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Richard Godwin, writing last month in The Guardian, heard the ‘angry, jagged, intermittent frenzy of metal on plaster’, as he worked on the article ‘Sonic doom: how noise pollution kills thousands each year’. You know the feeling. Having spent ten years living in various flat-shares around south London – where there are seemingly endless rail, road, and building works – I knew it too. I’d use music, Miranda Lambert, any of Florence Welch’s albums, or Sia, to drown out the harsh sound of the city – it needed to be loud in my headphones. Everything felt invasive: small noises felt loud, loud noises made me panicky.

This spring, I moved to a farm. Now I hear cows in the field next door, the sporadic outburst of a blackbird. Ragged caws from a rookery. My chickens are just growing old enough to lay, so they’re duking it out in the garden with clucks when one gets really excited. In the heat-wave of the last fortnight, I’ve sat in the river, listening to damselflies. The first layer of sound is the burble and rush of water. The second layer: hundreds of insects’ wings, like tiny zippers or the seed-rush of very fine rain-sticks. Whish, whish. I’ve felt more relaxed than I have in years.

I’m not alone: there’s a growing field of research on the effects of noise on health. In 2014, The Lancet published a review on the subject, and social or leisure noise – the kind that comes from personal music players, concerts, nightclubs, cinema, orchestras – was part of the research covered. They found that it can be a major cause of noise-based annoyance. “If you find the music unpleasant, it’s going to induce stress,” says Dr Andrew King, professor of neurophysiology at Oxford, who researches neural coding and plasticity in the auditory system.

“There is no question that everyday exposure to loud sounds will cause damage,” he continues. ‘Loud’ depends on intensity and duration, but is often defined as more than 105 dB for over an hour. Prolonged ‘passive exposure’ (that is, music we’re not choosing to listen to, including background noise) to ‘normal’ levels of sound, around 80 dB or less, is “likely to …impact on the way the brain responds to sound”. So, active listening isn’t the problem here – as long as it’s not too loud, playing and paying attention to your favourite tunes is fine. Rather, it’s the obtrusive sounds that might be causing low-level stress to build up in our bodies.

Do you plug into headphones most of the time to escape unwanted noise, or work in an open-plan office with other people’s music surrounding you? What about that cafe where you’re trying to have a flat white and work on your PhD? All the racket is passive noise that can take a toll, increase your stress, and distract your attention. You may rarely spend time by yourself, in silence. Between the increasing noise of a busy world and the more metaphorical static of social media or pinging smartphone notifications, there’s a growing case for a quieter life. That could mean decreasing your exposure to passive music, listening to natural sounds more often, or enjoying silence. It may well be why old techniques of meditation and Transcendentalism are returning, with new names – Mindfulness and Shinrin-yoku, Forest Bathing. Though evidence is yet to confirm that low-level, constant beats might damage your hearing, they are likely to affect your brain, your stress, and your attention. King says, “whatever the case may be, it’s best to give your ears a break”.’

When it comes to respite, silence is often best. Take John Cage’s, “4:33”, debuted in 1952. It can be performed on any instrument, or combination of instruments – because it is a performance of silence. Closely related to Cage’s studies of Zen meditation, it was, as you might imagine, controversial, and is still considered his most famous piece. Cage wanted to explore the ambient sounds in any given environment: he considered the different types of silence that such a performance would evoke, when ‘played’ in different settings with different instruments, for various audiences with varying expectations. Thinking about all of the sounds around you as a kind of ‘music’ may be more or less challenging, depending on your environment, but it certainly wakes up your mind, calling it to attention rather than to escape.

Passive exposure to social noise pollution - that is, music you don’t want to hear - may be more difficult to tackle, especially if you find yourself navigating a busy city. But there are ways to find moments of rejuvenating quiet. If you’re in London, churches and parks are often places of tranquillity in the bustle – the blog A Peace of London can help with suggestions.

All of which is to say, there's no need to put down the latest Travis Scott, Internet or Mac Miller records. So long as you're listening to them actively, that is – taking in each sound, at a relative volume. But take a moment to be in silence from time to time, too, away from noise pollution. Even if it's Cage's "4:33", played out in headphones while you sit in a park, at least you know you’ll have four minutes and thirty-three seconds of contemplation in your day. And that's important.

You can find Kelley on Twitter.