The world is louder than ever, and it’s causing ‘schizophonia’

If you can believe it, our high-tech soundscape is actually lo-fi

At a loudspeaker competition in Allahabad, India, 2011. Electronically produced sound is a major contributor to today’s lo-fi urban soundscape. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

Before you read any further, stop and listen to your surroundings. You may hear cars from a nearby freeway, an air conditioner whirring overhead, even the hum of your refrigerator.

In fact, you may already be living above the 75-decibel level recommended by the EPA during an 8-hour period. Studies show an estimated 30 million Americans are exposed to hazardous noise while working jobs like construction or transportation, which could result in long-term hearing loss. Lower-income neighborhoods near airports are adversely affected. Even average noise in the home can easily reach or exceed 90 dB.

During the noisiest time in history — when the age of the automobile butts up against the era of electronics and gets smashed into dense urban populations — hearing loss is only a portion of what’s at stake. The field of “acoustic ecology” aims to reverse the noise pollution of today’s technology-driven world, but more importantly, to consciously create living environments that actually sound beautiful.

The father of acoustic ecology is a composer and pedagogue named Murray Schafer. His 1977 book, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, shaped a new dialogue around reducing and protecting certain sounds. He asked two big questions: What is the relationship between man and the sounds of his environment and what happens when those sounds change? And which sounds do we want to preserve, encourage, multiply?

R. Murray Schafer (left) — father of acoustic ecology — at work in the recording studio. (Bob Olsen/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Schafer argues that, over time, humans have moved from hi-fi to lo-fi sound environments, which he calls “soundscapes.” In a hi-fi soundscape, distinct sounds can be heard more clearly due to the low ambient noise level. There is a foreground of sounds and a background: “the sound of a pail on the lip of a well, and the crack of a whip in the distance,” to borrow a phrase from Alain-Fournier’s depiction of the French countryside. With favorable signal-to-noise ratio, we can hear better at farther distances, ideal for hunting, security, and general peacefulness.

During hi-fi times, cultures around the world actually embraced noise. They equated it with spiritual experiences, or at least, important information. The gods communicated with thunder, earthquakes, avalanches — even Jesus’ followers heard the word of God. By extension, early Christian communities made church the centermost (and loudest) part of a community. Its bell clanged through the silence with authority and literally delimited civilization against wilderness. Schafer calls sound to these early thinkers “sacred noise.”

In today’s lo-fi soundscape, however, even powerful acoustic signals are obscured due to an overpopulation of sounds. Think of it like light pollution, where an abundance of city lights blocks one’s view of the distant stars. Depending on location, one may scarcely hear a voice in the next room, much less across a lake. Each individual sound must be amplified above the existing noise. [Insert political analogy here.]

Remember the last time you boarded a subway or an airplane. When the vehicle roared to life you popped your headphones on. However, you had to turn the volume up to hear over the din. And that’s only two of the many sounds that blanket our consciousness today.

(L) A pressman at the New York Post wears ear protection from machine noise on his job site in 1993. (AP Photo/Ted Cowell) / (R) A passenger jet flies low over a neighborhood in East Boston in 1973. (Michael Philip Manheim/EPA)

The subway and the headphones also represent two periods of extreme technological progress that forever changed how humans relate to sound: the Industrial Revolution and the Electrical Revolution, respectively.

The Industrial Revolution mechanized a vast swath of labor previously completed by and relegated to rural communities. It concentrated more people in urban areas exploding with industry. Factories roared at all hours, as workers put in 18-hour days. Coal and steam powered the crunch, clang, and creak of cast iron and steel. As a result, singing, which had once marked the rhythm of manual labor, was drowned by the whirring machines. As Lewis Mumford writes in Technics and Civilization, “Labor was orchestrated by the number of revolutions per minute, rather than the rhythm of song or chant or tattoo.”

Industry officially turned the world lo-fi. By the early 20th century, the sounds of technology were commonplace to the human ear. Later, in the case of the automobile, noise came to represent power and autonomy more than ever. The rules of sacredness had changed.

The second sound revolution came in the form of electronics, which made it so sounds could be copied and transported artificially. Morse’s telegraph (1838) was one of the first of such inventions, though the telephone, phonograph, and radio would make the most profound impact on modern acoustics. Such developments caused what Schafer dubbed “schizophonia,” the split between an original sound and its electroacoustical transmission or reproduction.

Suddenly, no sound necessarily came from its original source, and therefore it could be manipulated. Radio shows pitched people to different realities; the loudspeaker, projected loudly over a city center, aided imperialist ambitions in World War II. “We should not have conquered Germany without…the loudspeaker,” wrote Hitler in 1938.

Commuters on the New York subway tune out the train’s noise by turning up their headphones in 2005. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

“Gadgetry,” writes Schafer, “not only contributes generously to the lo-fi problem, but it creates a synthetic landscape in which natural sounds are becoming increasingly unnatural while machine-made substitutes are providing the operative signals directing modern life.”

Think about your headphones on the subway. When the train noise stops, the music in your ears suddenly seems deafeningly loud. You need to turn it down. Even then, you’re still surrounded by people crunching chips, stomping snow off their boots. Does noise ever end?

It doesn’t need to, argues Schafer. The point of acoustic ecology isn’t eliminating sounds altogether, though at this point a remote cabin on a windless day seems heavenly. Rather, our goal should be eliminating disagreeable sounds and enhancing pleasant ones based on the preferences, culture, and natural resources of a given area.

In an Utne magazine interview, Schafer recounts that the Japanese Soundscape Association asked people to nominate their 100 favorite soundscapes in the country. Thousands replied; some even nominated the way a wave sounds when it breaks on a particular seashell. The association then visited and decided whether to add such places to a protected list, like heritage sites. “Pass it back to the people,” Schafer says. They don’t want a lot of noise. They’re just used to it.