Making noise in favor of silence

At 6 on a midsummer morning, our suburban neighborhood is bathed in stillness.

The first commuter train will not whistle its arrival for another 20 minutes. Carpenters renovating a house down the street won't begin their rhythmic tap-tap of hammers until midmorning. The friendly collie a few doors away hasn't yet barked her welcome to a new day, and power mowers won't buzz their way around verdant lawns until the weekend. For now, only the cheerful song of birds breaks the post-dawn silence.

Ah, silence. What an increasingly rare commodity it is, to be savored wherever it can be found. From music blaring in malls to radios booming on beaches and cellphones ringing in concert halls, noise assaults us everywhere. Like junk mail clogging the mailbox, junk noise fills the air, producing what has been called "aural graffiti."

Last week, more than a few visitors watching the Tall Ships sail majestically into Boston Harbor were dismayed by the incessant noise overhead. One man, complaining in a letter to The Boston Globe, counted four helicopters, four planes towing banners, and two blimps. "If it were not for the intrusion of this noise, the day would have been perfect," he wrote.

A week earlier, recorded music blared during a July Fourth fireworks display in Boston. At least one spectator found the music "loud, tasteless, and horrible," drowning out even the sound of fireworks. "The music ruined the show," he sputtered in a newspaper letter.

In airports, omnipresent television sets drone with news and commercials, turning waiting passengers into prisoners. The friendly skies themselves are losing their status as the last bastion of solitude. Virgin Atlantic has announced that passengers on some planes will be able to use cellphones in flight. Bye-bye quiet at 40,000 feet.

Even upscale restaurants now come with the clattering acoustics of a diner, as sound bounces off bare floors and metallic decor. When researchers at New Scientist magazine in Britain measured noise in numerous London eateries recently, they found the majority with decibel levels over 90, resembling "a pig house at feeding time." Forget conversation. Please pass the salt - and the ear muffs.

One man who understood the judicious uses of silence was Robert J. Lurtsema, a longtime classical music host for WGBH radio in Boston. Mr. Lurtsema, who passed on last month, was both praised and parodied for the long pauses that punctuated his news reports and musical introductions. Defending his style, he once said, "I'm not afraid of dead air. I don't think there's anything wrong with a quiet spot once in a while."

Yet dead air and quiet spots increasingly seem anathema in a world that sometimes appears afraid of stillness and often equates noise with energy. Noise pollution represents a frontier still to be conquered. Communities ban visual blight - billboards and neon signs, for instance. They also worry about toxic emissions and secondhand smoke. Yet many ignore that other form of air pollution, noise.

The good news is a growing interest in "acoustic ecology," a movement concerned with the state of the world's "soundscape." Groups are trying to reduce aviation noise, ban leaf blowers, restrict personal watercraft, design quieter snowmobiles, and even create quieter classrooms.

For the rest of us who care about a calmer environment, perhaps the time has come to shed our timidity and make some noise of our own by speaking up. We could politely ask restaurants and stores to turn down loud music. We could complain to airport managers about excessive terminal noise. We could pick up our pens and write to anyone with influence, voicing our particular concerns.

It's the first step in rediscovering the beautiful sound of silence, not just at 6 a.m. in the suburbs, but elsewhere as well. We could even suggest a simple motto: Shh-hh-hh.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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