Breaking Down the Wall of Sound

cars driving on urban highway in evening

Traffic. Construction. Lawn Maintenance. Barking dogs. The world has gotten noisier. You might think that someone who wears hearing aids wouldn’t notice.

Ah, but that’s what the aids do. They strengthen weak hearing so people like me can get just as irritated by too many loud sounds. And we tend to hear those sounds just a little differently. Hearing aid mics are on the back of the devices. So we take in more ambient sound, and what’s going on behind us, than you might.

A study shows that half of Canadians believe our communities have gotten louder. More irritating and distracting. About two-thirds of respondents report that their own homes are louder than they were a couple of years ago. And that’s not just because little Jackson has taken up the drums or Olivia is learning the flute.

Some experts say it’s because we finally know what it’s like to have complete peace and quiet. During the peak of the pandemic, when everything was shut down and all outdoor activities came to a halt, we got to experience silence, perhaps for the first time. Now, even a barking dog or a briefly revving motorcycle is enough to send some people into a noise-fueled rage.

And it’s not the old man with his pants hiked up to his armpits who’s complaining. It’s men and women under the age of 35. Because they’re the ones who have pivoted to working from home in big numbers. Buddy’s leaf blower interrupts their workday now. Working in an office tower had insulated them from outside noise. Ten percent of adults under 35 said they picked up and moved in the last year because of excessive noise.

Younger people are also more likely to stuff in ear protection or wear noise-canceling headphones. Folks 35+ either grin and bear it or yell, “Get off my lawn!”

Noise Indoors and Out

For years, I couldn’t even hear birds. Now, with the help of electronics, I hear too much sometimes.

A wonderful London restaurant is a big offender. Dolcetto’s patio was just put on another national best-of list. The food and service are always 10/10 but the atmosphere is not as pleasant. And it’s not just me – everyone we’ve ever enjoyed a meal with at Dolcetto has remarked on how incredibly noisy it is. As people who work with sound, it’s easy to see why. It’s full of hard surfaces and nothing to absorb voices bouncing off the walls. It’s distracting and forces you to yell over your delicious meal.

But Lisa, you ask. Don’t you ride a motorcycle? Doesn’t your husband have a Harley? One of the biggest offenders out there? Yes and yes. I give Derek the gears about how loud his Harley is. It arrived that way. But he’s thoughtful about our neighbours. He would never fire it up before 9 am and when he does start it, he’s ready to go. It doesn’t sit and idle. If he really needed to go earlier, he would duck-walk it to the open road and start it there.

My last bike came with louder pipes and I had baffles installed. They reduced the sound dramatically. Loud, rumbling exhaust systems are a choice. And we don’t subscribe to the adage that, Loud Pipes Save Lives. Being seen saves lives on a motorcycle. But yes, we contribute to the environmental buzz. That’s why plenty of motorcyclists wear hearing protection. Ironic, eh?

People are more knowledgeable now about the long-term effects of noisy environments. Beyond hearing loss, it affects our moods and even cognitive abilities. But Derek is the exception to the rule. Besides riding motorcycles, he has been trackside for some of the noisiest car race events you can imagine. He likes his music turned up to 11. He has never worn ear protection on his Harley. And he can still hear a sparrow fart from 300 metres away.

8 thoughts on “Breaking Down the Wall of Sound”

  1. As I age, and my friends face this challenge, I’m ashamed to recall how students used to torture one teacher who wore them. It was in high school, you’d think we’d have known better, but with teens, anything for a laugh. Students would barely whisper on purpose, forcing him to increase the volume of his aid. As soon as he’d done that, the students would then crank up their voice to just short of a yell. Decades later, his daughter came into my shop and recognizing her name, I asked if her dad was a teacher. Once she told me who he was, I apologized, not because I personally had done this horrible stunt, but because I’d witnessed it in silence not wanting to ostracize myself from ‘the crowd’. She smiled and said “my dad knew, he never actually adjusted his aids, he just let on he did, for as soon as he turned them up or down he knew what came next. What a wise and knowledgeable man he was. Teenagers who thought they knew everything, had no idea how brilliant the man was they chose to mock.

    1. What a great story and what a relief, too! Back then, hearing aids were those awful pink things that stood out an inch from the ear. Now, I can wear my hair in a ponytail and no one knows I have them in. Thanks for sharing, Sarah. Why am I not surprised that you would feel bad for only witnessing this behavior. (You’re a good person.) In high school, I think we all stayed silent over one thing or another. No one wanted to turn the bully’s attention to themselves.

  2. Electric and silent vehicles kill! Think about it? How can a blind person hear if a vehicle is coming when trying to cross the street whether it be at a lighted intersection and someone trying to make a right turn in front of you or waiting to cross at a cross walk, have the vehicles stopped, do they see me wanting to cross.

    Try crossing a street when there is so much ambient noise you can’t hear the traffic sound or direction.

    A certain level of noise is appreciated, but you’re right there is often to much of it and frequently at the wrong time.

    I live and survive by sound, most things talk to me these days, but give me the opportunity to get up before sunrise and sit at the end of a dock and listen to nature come alive, I’m there.

    1. You’re right, Allan. There are so many factors we don’t think about when it comes to sound and one is how it affects blind people. I never even thought about the implications of electric vehicles.

  3. There is a church in our little town whose bells ring every evening at 7. I swear, they are so much louder than when I heard them as a kid. Someone has turned them up because I do not remember them being painfully loud years ago like they are now. Maybe they are compensating for a louder world?

  4. I regard to the church bells. I recently dealt with this in our little community and can offer a couple explanations. The carillon in my church failed after 27 years of service, zero maintenance , twice a day,365 days a year. Amazing. They were put in place as a bequeath from one of my closest friends grandmas, who had made this church her faith venue for her almost 90 years. Daily at noon and 6 they chimed for 4 minutes.
    When they went silent , the repair was significant so we raised the money to get them operational again
    When the technicians installed the new speakers, they changed their positioning in the belfry, and given their new direction the volume escalated, as now the sound waves had a newly placed subdivision in front of them,instead of forest. We had the technicians return and reposition the speakers and the volume level returned to the norm . Both of these adjustments didn’t even register with us until it presented a challenge we’d not considered .

    1. Hey Sarah, interesting. I never considered it might be the result of some other technical adjustment. M’Lady and I theorized they want the bells to be heard all across town, and — as Lisa’s post points out — that is becoming a harder goal to achieve in our loud world.

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