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Soundings: noise – a health warning…not shouting about it…defining it

Will noise become the new cigarette smoke? – Michael Spencer on the implications of International Noise awareness Day Not shouting about noise – AEG-Electrolux  makes a point about domestic noise without ever raising its voice (AP) Noise?  What Noise? – definitions that should matter to the audio media (AP)

Will noise become the new cigarette smoke?

April 16 was International Noise Awareness Day. So we have a music-free feature this month in recognition of the wider sonic environment. And we wonder whether noise might soon become the new cigarette smoke. Office workers huddled in doorways listening to i-pods…

The parallels are not without merit. One of the biggest kick-backs against smoking in public has been not individual indulgence, but the effect of passive smoking – of inhaling the stuff no-one can control. Sound is a similar natural phenomenon: like fire or water, hugely beneficial when well managed, but taking no prisoners when left to its own devices.

There is increasing pressure on marketing and PR executives nowadays to embrace the values and benefits of sonic branding and audio logos. Every broadcasting outlet in the world uses music tracks to counter the fear of silence over the airwaves. Retail outlets often aggressively compete for custom using ever louder in-shop backing music, often supplied remotely.

All this in spite of the fact that consumers, when asked, usually abhor the intrusion of competing sounds. At what point does a legitimate marketing tool become a weapon of mass distraction? There are no simple answers – and certainly Sound Strategies is not advocating a silent marketplace

But neither does it support a free-for-all in which sensitivity to the multi-layered messages of sounds and music becomes submerged in an undifferentiated stream of sonic sludge.

What makes a sound into a noise is not just a question of volume or persistence, or even taste (some people get the hots for the sound of a car engine, for example), but whether or not we buy into it. One mother’s sonic heaven is another’s screaming brat.

This can be easily confirmed by a simple mind experiment: TV or radio sounds are proven distracters for people whose work involves a lot of intellectual energy, yet many people happily plan complex projects against a high level of background music. Try it. Then imagine attempting the work with the audio coming not from the same room but from the apartment next door. Even though the sound levels will inevitably be much lower, frustration levels can often go through the roof. Not because of the sound itself, but because of the lack of control over it. We can tolerate high sound volumes so long as we know we have the option to turn it down.

The question of control and how it impinges on our psycho-physiological reactions to sound is an area in need of further study. In many ways it’s the elephant in the room. There are huge amounts of data reporting hearing loss effects for exposure to given sound volumes for given time spans in different frequency bands, but few studies appear to have looked at the relationship between sound/stress and the attitude of the recipient or his/her ability to control the sound source.

Do we know, for example, whether the restoration time of temporary hearing loss depends on the stress factor associated with the original sound or not? In other words, is there a psycho-physical difference between intended exposure to 60 minutes of rock music at 90 dBA compared to 60 minutes of unwilling exposure to metro train noise at 90 dBA?

Anyone who has tried to sleep through the sounds of a party next door will attest to the fact that volume level is rarely the most critical element of what constitutes noise. Perhaps a better definition of noise is ‘sound over which we have no control’. It is possible that the primary operator on our body’s reaction to sound is the ability to control it – are we opting into this sound willingly or not? If not, can we eliminate it?

It seems a pity that a lot of the International Noise Awareness Day coverage has been at pains to emphasise the dangers of living in an apparently increasingly noisy urban world, without offering many solutions other than ‘turn it off’. And of course media reactions, such as Jason Allardyce describing the possible decimation of Scottish bagpipe music in Times Online, as a possible consequence of a recent European Noise Directive do not contribute much to the understanding.

Harry Eyres, writing in the Financial Times recently, makes a strong case for re-sensitisation to the sounds of everyday life, while pointing out that much of what presents as low level processing offers real poverty of information. Let’s hope our renowned creative industries wake up to the importance of creativity in the  sound environment before too long.

Michael Spencer Managing Director


Not shouting about noise.

Any commercial enterprise thinking of constructing a marketing campaign around the question of domestic noisewould probably be looked on at best with indulgence and at worst with cynicism. Yet AEG-Electrolux have courageously nailed their colours to this mast in recent months. The AEG-Electrolux Noise Report 2007 was based on 2000 interviews conducted across ten European countries and aimed to discover just what kind of noise people encountered in their homes. Not surprisingly, most people reported the largest source of noise pollution was other people – in the same family, the apartments next door or in the street. On the other hand, people tend to be less bothered about noise when they are the cause of it. A loud TV is only loud to the people in the next room.

AEG-Electrolux, naturally, was concerned about domestic appliances a source of noise, though the report concedes that these come rather further down the scale of domestic noise annoyance. But the interesting issue here is perhaps less the lack of concern about noise, as the lack of sensitivity to it. The paper reiterates the potentialpsycho-somatic harm which can arise from constant exposure to the sorts of low-level ambient sounds most people would tolerate or dismiss. And it implicitly supports a need for more education and awareness by reporting that, when prompted, people often regretted not being aware of a machine’s noise issues when they bought it.

So AEG-Electrolux clearly has an eye to the long game here. Its domestic machines are already impressively quiet, as they demonstrated during the press launch by having half a dozen of them in full operation hidden behind a curtain during the (microphone-free) presentation. But this will mean very little unless people are convinced that noise is an issue. The evidence is growing that it should be, so perhaps AEG-Electrolux can help provoke a classic consumer revolt. The more people who become aware of useless background sound, the more they are likely to complain or do something about it.

There is a long way to go still. Here, for example, is what Times Online journalist Susan d’Arcy had to say about one of the world’s most expensive new hotels – the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi:

“Every evening, a maid will place a “bouquet” of chocolates on your bedside table and tuck your choice of a lavender- or rose-scented liner inside your Italian-linen pillow case to ensure a restful night’s sleep. What a shame they didn’t think to soundproof the place as well. On my first night, the adjoining room was occupied by a couple whom I’ll describe as honeymooners — you get the idea. On the second, they were replaced by someone who really, really enjoyed the sound of his own voice. I almost pined for the honeymooners. How on earth can the Abu Dhabi government have spent billions on a hotel and overlooked something as fundamental as cancelling out the next-door bedroom’s noise?”

Andrew Peggie


Noise? What Noise?

One of the intractable issues about noise is the difficulty of finding a definition which suits all circumstances and all tastes at all times. The AEG-Electrolux report acknowledges this by implication – though spelling it out might have given a more effective spin to the document.

Unless people are made aware of background noise, they tend to tolerate it. And indeed, very often noise is not only tolerable but essential to the situation. Imagine a totally silent restaurant, for example. However, there is always a small but significant number of situations where noise becomes intrusive and the consequences for the victim can be debilitating.

What no-one seems to be investigating are the conditions which provoke the tipping point at which a background sound becomes an intolerable distraction.

There are in fact two tipping points. One is the moment when the sound is listened to and catches our full attention; the other is when the sound becomes a noise and provokes action to eliminate or avoid it. In between, we subject the background sound to a certain amount of low level processing. Even if our fuller attention is elsewhere, our brain is filtering some elements of meaning from the sounds we can hear but are not listening to.

This is of particular relevance to people who use sound and music for marketing and PR purposes, because low level processing in the context of video or TV can be an effective way of embedding brand messages. But if the sounds tip over into intolerable distractions, forcing an unwanted aural focus on the listener, then of course the negative fall-out spills over into all aspects of the commercial. And more insidious, if the information content of half listened-to audio is degraded, undifferentiated or wholly predictable, then the low level processing adds nothing to our subliminal awareness, apart from suggesting a generalised mood.

In the absence of any verifiable data about which elements of sound affect the tipping points, creatives seem to resort to two remedies: either they shout louder (both in terms of the content and by compressing the volume level) or they stick with bland, comfort zone material whose only quality is its inability to upset anyone. What is creative about either?

Andrew Peggie

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