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All things aural: Editorial on the declining human ability to distinguish between noise and notes

Worryingly, as modern living deteriorates into a cacophony of noise, the mind, unable to differentiate between aural mayhem and melody, is retaliating by demonising the latter

The Editorial Board Published 14.04.24, 09:02 AM
Representational image

Representational image Sourced by the Telegraph

Birds chirping, church bells chiming, horses whinnying — these are often the sweet notes on which some popular fairytales begin and others end. But for the néoruraux — rural newcomers — in the French countryside, they are not exactly music to the ear. Many such newcomers have been taking farmers and other rural residents to court, claiming that the crowing of the rooster, the ringing of church bells or the mooing of livestock infringe upon their newly-claimed right to ‘pastoral quiet’. But the French State, mercifully, has turned a deaf ear to their clamour. France’s Parliament has retaliated by adopting a new law in an effort to put an end to hundreds of complaints brought by disgruntled city folk who cannot differentiate between ambient pastoral sounds and pandemonium. This kerfuffle is by no means trifle, or even comic. For it raises a chilling possibility: being besieged by noise — the 20th century was the noisiest in history and, so far, the 21st is set to be even louder — seems to have blunted civilisation’s ability to differentiate between noise and notes.

What makes the debate quirkier is the fact that noise and sound can be subjective experiences. Decibels, science tells us, are a reliable measure of the divergence between the two: anything above 85 decibels would be considered noisy by most people as that is the comfort threshold for human ears. Yet, researchers at the University of Stuttgart found that people are more comfortable with thunderclaps, which are an average of 120 decibels, than with power lawnmowers that emit around 90 dB. Some are driven to sleeplessness by the mere ticking of a clock (20 dB) in a quiet room, while others cannot doze off without switching on ‘sleep machines’ that emit white noise. But why would city-dwellers — victims of perpetual sound pollution — be discomfited by the crowing of a rooster or the chiming of a church bell? The answer may lie in the increasing human alienation from natural settings that were once organic to life and living. The acoustic ecologist, Gordon Hempton, claims that quiet places are going extinct at a rate that far exceeds the extinction of species. With noise becoming an unrelenting presence, silence has become too precious a commodity to be sacrificed even for sounds that were once considered idyllic. It is not as if humans found only pastoral music to be soothing. Urban ecosystems had their signature tunes — the now fading cries of ‘sil katao’ or ‘shishi-botol bikri’ by vendors in Calcutta’s neighbourhoods are a quaint example.


Worryingly, as modern living deteriorates into a cacophony of noise, the mind, unable to differentiate between aural mayhem and melody, is retaliating by demonising the latter. This is particularly unfortunate because research by the Artesis University College, Antwerp shows that conserving the unique aural soundscape of habitats by cutting down on the noise pollution that is drowning it enhances the quality of life. If only humanity could hear the truth.

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