Dimming the decibels in a noisy world

On a mid-March Saturday, brilliant sunshine streams through the windows of a popular suburban cafe, offering a welcome promise of spring to the winter-weary New Englanders who have come to enjoy breakfast and conversation.

It is a pleasant gathering place - good pastries, sophisticated decor, friendly staff, and convivial atmosphere. But on this particular morning, one errant detail mars the usual calm: Someone has cranked up the volume of the background music, making conversation more difficult.

A customer at the next table, echoing our own unspoken thoughts, turns to us and asks, "Is that music loud, or is it just me?"

It's not just you, we assure her. Without hesitating, she politely asks a waitress to adjust the volume. Presto! The room calms down. Shoulders relax, patrons settle back in their chairs, and talking becomes pleasant again.

Call it a micro example of a macro challenge. From throbbing music in public places - restaurants, stores, malls - to cellphones that ring insistently everywhere, including during concerts and church services, the inescapable fact is this: Increasingly, it's a noisy, noisy world out there.

So noisy are some restaurants, in fact - often because of bare floors and tables, high ceilings, and hard-edged decors - that the San Francisco Chronicle now includes "noise ratings" in its restaurant reviews. As a reader service, it ranks each establishment by decibel levels:

"One bell: Pleasantly quiet (under 65 decibels). Two bells: Can talk easily (65-70). Three bells: Talking normally gets difficult (70-75). Four bells: Can only talk in raised voices (75-80). Bomb: Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)."

Restaurants aren't the only culprits ratcheting up the national sound level. When Hollywood gathers for the Academy Awards ceremony this Sunday evening, the winner of the Oscar for Best Sound will earn a dubious distinction: All five films nominated for the award ("U-571," "The Perfect Storm," "Cast Away," "The Patriot," and "Gladiator") feature very loud soundtracks.

Just a coincidence? Not necessarily. The same pattern prevailed last year, when "The Matrix," a noisy sci-fi thriller, won the award for Best Sound.

Looking back at recent Academy patterns, The Wall Street Journal concludes that the more a movie features "ear-splitting explosions, deafening storms, or riotously loud crowd scenes, the more likely it is to garner a nomination."

Please pass the popcorn - and the earplugs.

Unless, that is, you're the kind of moviegoer - increasingly common, alas - who considers a darkened theater the ideal place to chat with friends, competing with the soundtrack and annoying other viewers. A recent New Yorker cartoon captures the trend perfectly. As two young women walk together, one says to the other, "We've got to talk. Let's go to a movie."

Or, she could have said, to the public library.

Libraries, one of the last bastions of quietude, are turning into the town entertainment center in some areas as they increasingly open their doors to a host of community activities. Technology is further increasing decibel levels in once-quiet reading areas. A CD-ROM game, for example, typically generates more chatter than a book.

No wonder the old image of a librarian primly holding an index finger to her lips in an effort to hush noisy patrons is vanishing.

The adage "Silence is golden" will always have its uses. At the same time, the right sounds in the right place can be golden as well. The trick today, in a noise-loving society, is knowing what's appropriate when.

Making the right distinctions will be music to many people's ears. Background music, of course, adjusted to just the right unobtrusive volume.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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