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The Book of Noise


R. Murray Schafer
The Book of Noise
Newly revised
Arcana Editions, 1998
52 pages
Ordering Info


Excerpts:

About the Book
Psychological Disturbance: Social Complaints
The Basic Module



About the Book

The Book of Noise was originally written in 1968 as a primer for concerned citizens, to explain the dangers of noise pollution in simple language and to suggest some solutions. In updating it thirty years later, my only regret is that it still seems necessary. Over the years I have noted the sustained growth of citizens' organizations dedicated to solving noise problems; but I have also witnessed the reluctance of governments to introduce tough legislation and enforce it, while the manufacturers blithely go on pouring out their cornucopia of noisy toys. On the positive side, I have witnessed and participated in the growth of soundscape studies and the birth of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, dedicated to the intelligent design of quieter environments for the future. Thanks to the sustained efforts of countless people, solutions to some of the worst problems are being found or now seem attainable, though a larger effort is still necessary, particularly in the area of public education, if we are to succeed in restoring a balanced and ecological soundscape to the world.

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Psychological Disturbance: Social Complaints

A noise need not be at all loud to be disturbing. Think of the dripping tap. I have known musicians, for instance, whose ire is immediately aroused if they enter a room where background music is present. Others may be irritated by the sound of a certain voice, a neighbour's pet, or even the modest hum of a computer.

Regardless of the magnitude of annoying sounds, there is no doubt that public complaints everywhere are on a massive upward swing. Noise complaints received by Environmental Health Officers in Britain more than doubled between 1983 and 1992, and complaints against aircraft noise quadrupled. In Rio de Janeiro, 60 percent of all public complaints in 1998 were noise-related. According to the U.S. Census, noise ranks higher than crime, traffic and public services as a cause of dissatisfaction with urban environments. When New York City opened a hot line for complaints, 70 percent of all calls dealt with noise, far above those concerned about crime, alcohol, or prostitution, much to the surprise of public officials.

Whatever its effects on health, as a psychological irritant noise is moving to the top position in modern society. As a former U.S. Surgeon General said, "Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience."

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The Basic Module

A module is a basic unit that we may use as a guide for measuring. In the human environment it is the human being who forms the basic module. When architects organize spaces for human beings to inhabit they use the human anatomy as the guiding module. The door frame accommodates the human frame, the stair the human foot, the ceiling the human stretch. To demonstrate the binding relationship between architectual space and the human beings for whom it is created, Le Corbusier made a man with an upstretched arm his aesthetic symbol and imprinted it on all his buildings.

The basic modules for the acoustic environment are the human ear and the human voice. We know a good deal about the behaviour and tolerances of each of these organs. Thus we may speak of acoustic ecology, the delicate balance between living organisms and their acoustical environments. When environmental sound reaches such proportions that human vocal sounds are masked or overwhelmed, we have created an inhuman environment. When the ear is forced to listen to sounds that may endanger it physically, we have created an inhuman environment.

It is interesting to consider that while the voice can be raised to quite a loud level (about 75 dB) at no time can it be raised beyond a level where it might endanger the ear (about 85-90 dB). In discriminating against low-frequency sounds the human ear conveniently filters out deep body sounds such as brainwaves and the movement of the blood in our veins. Also the human hearing threshold has been set conveniently just above the level that would introduce a continuous recital of air molecules crashing together. The quiet efficiency of all body movements is another stroke of genius.

God was a first-rate acoustical engineer.

Imagine what you'd sound like if you'd been manufactured by General Motors.

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Last Updated: 08-Mar-2000
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