Noise is offensive sound — not offensive in just an aesthetic or ethical sense, but in the direct sense of being human in origin and, therefore, contrived.
Sound is natural, but noise is not. Sounds (which will include the subset of noises) must be filtered intelligently, distinguishing degrees of meaningfulness from deliberate and reprehensible offense.
Noise is made by people and machines, the latter being extensions of people. There are a few natural places left in the world of nature where human-generated sounds are not heard. Such places are rare — one may think of them cynically as the dwelling-places of indigenous peoples not yet conquered by civilization. To some people, silence is antiquarian, something to be hung in a gallery or boxed up in a museum. Noise rules the world. And like technology and globalization, noise cannot be rolled back.
Even in the apparent silence of one’s house or room there is noise: the clicking of a clock, the hum of a refrigerator or fan, even the “sound” of low and high frequencies and microwaves inaudible to our clumsy ears but affecting our health and well-being as we sit surrounded by them. In one’s relative silence, savoring the absence of a world’s presence, comes a deep sigh, the inkling of restfulness and independence, even a constructive meditation or musing. Then a klaxon blares in the street, a neighbor shouts, or an airplne passes overhead. Immediately we are shaken from our reverie and plunged again into the ubiquity of noise, of human sound.
City-dwellers, especially, tend to ignore noise because it is part of the normal soundscape of their daily lives. The modernist composer John Cage went so far as to celebrate city noises as the only form of spontaneous music. By this time, Cage was living in Manhattan as a retired celebrity, oblivious to the lives of the toiling masses in those same noisy streets. Perhaps it was the other way around: music is noise, not noise is music.
City-dwellers’ ears selectively identify certain audible ranges to pay attention to, like animals alert to meaningful sounds because they may signify danger. What used to cause stress to primitive humans was the roar of a lion or howling of a wolf. Today, vehicles rushing at us from everywhere in the street compound stress thousands of times over compared to our ancestors. We think we distinguish meaningful sounds, but these are the dregs of subjectivity. Every noise assaulting us is automatically “meaningful” in a neurological way. Still, we imagine that noises are not dangerous — unless we live in a country at war, where the whine of missiles, and the shouts of groups of men and vehicles in the street represent a perpetual danger.
Most city-dwellers distribute audible ranges into categories of utility, such as conversation, favorite music, cooking sounds, ringtones — versus aircraft, sirens, and shouts. And if urban noises are too distracting, there are always headphones to blot out noise — or to blot out undesirable noise for one’s own version. White noise is the last refuge of the harried urban soul. A whole industry of “nature sounds” exists, but soon to be found on the remainder rank along with other contrived sounds.
A recent study shows that in urbanites the amygdala — the most primitive of our brain structures — reacts to certain stresses that the same organ in rural residents does not. The sounds, in these experiments, were the badgering and disparaging remarks of the clinician testing the reaction of subjects and trying to provoke a pattern on a screen. Maybe other sounds could be tested, but the remarks of others are often all the stress one needs for a day, or a lifetime.
Once we consider all human-generated sound to be noise, we are challenged to defend our very words and our listened-to audio, be it talk or music. Does it stir us to anger, arrogance, passion, curiosity, wistfulness, amusement, resentment, numbness? How does this or that piece of sound contribute to right thinking and feeling, to the development of some virtue or skill? Does it address deep needs? Does talk represent words of discernment, presented in a way that does not bore us or miss the standard of good presentation skill? Is the music merely frustrating our biorhythms, artificially representing excesses of one sort of passion or another, leaving us with earworms for the next few days?
The challenge of only speaking and hearing what reflects our human needs and deepest spiritual aspirations sounds as if the social content of sound — communication — is usually bad, unworthy, useless. But communication of any kind should have not merely a utilitarian purpose, however humane, but a spiritual quality. That is the test of speaking and communicating, for these represent not merely sounds but feelings, beliefs, aspirations, deep sentiments. “Those who talk do not know, those who keep silence know,” to paraphrase Lao-tzu. Communication must have an ethical component, not merely an auditory one. Listening, in turn, should evoke tranquility, insight, perspicacity, harmony, introspection. This should be the touchstone applied to everything auditory.
The solitary is potentially far ahead in the tasks of right listening and hearing, in distinguishing noise and sound. The solitary has the potential to instinctively sense what sound does well or not for the spirit or mind. This sensibility cannot remain at an instinctual level if solitude is to be cultivated. Noise is a human enterprise blotting out nature. This is the first clue to what the solitary must cultivate.
Contrary to modern thinking, a world without noise would not be a cold, lifeless world but a clear and revelatory world, a world in which all natural sounds would be appreciated. Then the whispers of the natural world — already present but barely perceived by most — would become meaningful to us.