Noise Research

Sound extends into all aspects of life. The following paper is my academic attempt to reveal the backwardness of noise policy and bylaws.


A Policy of Intolerable Noise

     In my research I look into our understanding of the urban soundscape, major health and aesthetic issues associated with soundscapes, who is affected and the approach taken by planners and policy makers. Because of the complex nature of the problem I researched several perspectives. From a historical perspective I looked at noise in a pre-modern cultural context, followed the psychological thread from there into a modern cultural context, looking into not only policy but also social economics and urban studies. Through my research it became clear that our focus on the quantitative levels of sound rather than the qualitative perceptions of sound is backwards. Urban planners and policy makers are therefore unable to effectively design and plan. Local noise policy appears to contribute to a cold do not disturb culture that leaves citizens feeling disconnected. In order to create an inclusive, tolerant and diverse culture we need to shift our focus from the quantitative levels of sound to the qualitative perceptions of sound.

     In Thinking through Noise, Building toward Silence: Creating a Sound Mind and Sound Architecture in the Pre-modern City, Niall Atkinson (2015) explores the history of urban noise through five letters dating from 65 CE up to 1851 CE. As is apparent in Atkinson’s paper, in the urban environment, for better or worse, “noise is not a uniquely modern phenomenon but has a history.” (Atkinson pg.12) We see three different ways in which unwanted sound and noise were dealt with in the pre-modern city. 

     One strategy for dealing with unwanted noise was through the use of architecture, another through legislation, and the final way through the actual perception of noise. “In the late first century CE, Pliny the Younger describes the silent room he designed for the villa (and from which Renaissance designers would later take inspiration).” (pg.22) “Sound had, therefore, been conceptualized as a compositional issue, one to be managed by filtering it through the proper spaces.”(pg. 26) In 1851, Arthur Schopenhauer drafted “ official complaint concerning the ‘excessively frequent ... knocking, hammering, and banging that has been throughout my life a daily torment to me.’ ” (pg.16) “Schopenhauer’s spatial remedy for noise was to rid his apartment of intrusive racket by policing the city’s daily offending activities.” (pg.18) Contrasting Schopenhauer’s delicate disposition, in Seneca we find the third option for dealing with noise. Around 65 CE, Seneca writes, “... I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it.” (pg.14) “Here I am with a babel of noise going on all about me.” (pg.13) “But I swear I no more notice all this roar of noise [fremitum] than I do the sound of waves or falling water [fluctum aut deiectum aquae]...” (pg.13)

     Seneca’s letter demonstrates that noise, however alluring or repulsive, was not so much a disruption, as it is often conceived in more modern contexts, but a tool that allowed him to orient himself spatially and socially within his neighborhood and to reflect on the relationship between self and society, on the mental architecture that one could build to, like Ulysses’s wax, inflect, repel, and modulate the power of noise to devour one’s mental will. (Atkinson pg.15)

     While Seneca is capable of asserting control with his willpower, others like Pliny, rely on controlling the sound through architectural abatement, and others like Schopenhauer, prefer to legislate the offending sources of noise.  

     “Noise sensitivity” is predicted “by personality traits and psycho-social experiences.”(Dzhambov et al. pg.99) Schopenhauer’s sensitive disposition may have put him at a disadvantage in coping with unwanted noise. His letter touches on the importance of the perception of noise. 

      At times, I am tormented and disturbed for a while by a moderate and constant noise before I am clearly conscious thereof, since I feel it merely as a constant increase in the difficulty of thinking, like a weight tied to my foot, until I become aware of what it is. (Atkinson pg.16)

      Compare the above reference to not being conscious of noise by Schopenhauer in 1851 to the following mention of subconscious perception in a modern pilot study entitled “Neighborhood Noise Pollution as a Determinant of Displaced Aggression” (Dzhambov et al. in 2014.)

       Noise is a common cause for psychological distress, cognitive impairment, sleep disturbances, increase in social conflicts, anxiety, nervousness, emotional instability, argumentativeness, etc. Even at levels that are not harmful to the hearing, it is perceived subconsciously as a danger signal, even during sleep. (Dzhambov et al. pg.95)

       It’s significant, like both Schopenhauer and Dzhambov et al. pointed out, that sounds can be perceived subconsciously. Today our urban soundscapes are awash in the “ubiquitous background hum of cities” that consists of “mainly traffic” but also “ventilation, cooling and other [systems]” (Adams et al. pg 2394) This monotone sum of low frequency, high intensity and continuous sound normally doesn’t exceed permissible noise levels. We mostly may not even notice it, perceiving it subconsciously. However, because of their low frequency, high intensity and continuous quality, these sounds, which we may not be conscious of, have been shown to be harmful. The WHO estimated that “... at least 1 million healthy life years are lost every year from traffic-related noise in Western Europe.” (Dzhambov et al. pg.95)  Our collective driving around, heating and cooling systems, refrigeration systems and other machines, produce low frequency, high intensity and continuous sounds. The business of our daily lives provides a collective contribution to sounds that are harmful and reduce our quality of life.  

      Paragraph 3 of the City of Vancouver’s Noise Bylaw states that no one shall make any sounds that “... disturb unreasonably the quiet, peace, rest, enjoyment, comfort or convenience” of people in our neighborhoods. It appears that, at least in some cases, our pursuit of enjoyment, comfort and convenience is precisely what is preventing enjoyment, comfort and convenience. Logically it follows that we need to collectively stop producing harmful sounds, i.e., stop driving, stop using all our ventilation, heating and cooling systems or anything else that contributes to the disruption of anyone’s health and comfort. However, practical rationality forces us to reject such a logical notion.

      A more practical approach may be to learn who is most vulnerable to environmental noise exposure and then recommend relevant measures. In their research article, “Socioeconomic Status and Environmental Noise Exposure in Montreal, Canada”, Dale et al., conclude that “interventions to reduce noise levels in Montreal should be targeted to lower income neighborhoods”. (Dale et al. pg.7) They also noted that “noise exposure is highly variable and dependent on local contexts.” Proximity to noise is a factor that may or may not be related to socioeconomic status. Their “results indicate that deprived groups endure a double burden of low economic status and higher exposure to environmental noise.”(pg.7)

     A soundscape, being all the sounds in an environment, is not only “a way of perceiving” the environment but also “a culture constructed to make sense” of it. (Adams et al. pg.2386) Given that a culture is made up of individuals and that those individuals collectively contribute their personal dispositions toward sound it should follow that our culture reflects the collective of individual dispositions toward sound. However, according to Adams et al....

     It is clear that there is a disparity between what is being attempted in noise policy - i.e. the imposition of noise levels as determinants of wanted and unwanted sounds - and the way in which people respond to their soundscapes more subjectively. (Adams et al. pg.2394)

     Given the “gap between how policy treats sound (as noise) and how individuals treat sound (with aesthetic nuances)” it can be argued that noise policy is running the danger of creating a culture of “un-targeted noise abatement”, a monotone culture, that lacks diversity. (Adams et al. pg.2396)

     Thinking back to the historical letters presented by Atkinson we remember that each author had an individual and unique disposition to various sounds. In their paper titled “Sustainable Soundscapes: Noise Policy and the Urban Experience”, Adams et al. continue along those lines.

     Identification of positive and negative sound-marks by individuals in itself does not tell us what is wanted and unwanted noise at a community level, but it enables us to recognize that those responsible for noise policy must do more than simply measure general noise levels when regulating the soundscape. (Adams et al. pg.2395)

     Use of a more nuanced and place-based approach in order to “understand local perceptions” of sound ought to be incorporated “into decision-making about urban development.” (Adams et al. 2396) The very act of empowering local people to contribute to the design of their soundscape could in itself improve their disposition towards it. A person’s “perceived level of control” over a sound plays a role in their response to it. (pg. 2394) 

     Considering once again that “personality traits and psycho-social experiences” (Dzhambov et al. pg.99) also play a part in determining the subjectivities of our urban soundscapes we must ask ourselves about “perceptions of sound and positive soundscapes.” (Adams et al. pg.2389) Adams et al. maintain that, “where an acoustic component of the urban environment has been investigated it is mainly in relation to noise pollution and health effects.” i.e., hearing damage.  There’s another way to describe sounds, which is “according to the way they are perceived, [this is] known as psychoacoustics.” (Adams et al. pg.2386) In order to discuss the qualitative aspects of a soundscape, rather than simply the levels of noise, we need to start with a soundscape literacy which includes psychoacoustics.  

     In psychoacoustics, terms such as “keynote sounds”, “sound-marks” and “sound signals” help us add depth to our discussion about urban soundscapes. Keynote sounds are the sounds that form the background sounds of a particular environment. Like traffic in a downtown core during the day, they are continuous and frequent.  Sound-marks are sounds associated with landmarks, like a steam clock or church bells. Sound signals are sounds that draw our attention, like a siren, horn or someone playing music. (pg.2390)

      Borrowing [Canadian composer and author] Schafer’s terminology is useful as it provides a starting-point in identifying and distinguishing different sounds through contextualizing their meaning and significance. It is a method of classifying sounds and noises that enables the discussion of subjective responses to auditory exposures and it is this that makes it important for our purposes—it helps to articulate what is currently omitted from the planning process and provides a lexicon through which such concepts might be incorporated. (Adams et al. pg.2390)

     “Sustainable Soundscapes” (Adams et al. 2006) contains examples of sound-marks and sound signals that participating research subjects express as negative yet are tolerated or even appreciated when given a social context or a context wider than that of simplistic noise levels. When participants feel more in control of the situation their disposition towards it becomes more positive, with the exception of the intrusive keynote sound of traffic, in that there was nothing that participants could do about it, other than get used to it. (Adams et al. pg.2392-2394) 

     Through my research I’ve concluded that due to the fact that, practically speaking, little can be done about the harmful drone of traffic and other low frequency, high intensity systems, we’ve ended up with an approach to soundscapes that actually permits harmful sounds while legislating and even forbidding un-harmful diverse sounds that may be wanted by locals. The result is a kind of do not disturb culture, and “a conformity of soundscape” (pg.2394). More research is needed but perhaps a lack of sonic stirring up contributes to the feeling of loneliness and isolation commonly reported in Vancouver. (Vancouver Foundation 2012 survey) Disturbance in the soundscape, or stirring up the soundscape adds character and color to the environment and may also contribute to a sense of connection.

     Remember Seneca who used sound as “a tool that allowed him to orient himself spatially and socially within his neighborhood and to reflect on the relationship between self and society”. (Atkinson pg.13) There are relationships between “local identity, the sense of ‘belonging’ to a place”, “the built environment and a sense of community...” (Adams et al. pg.2390) The practices of listening, identifying, articulating, and being sonically literate bring more awareness of self and environment. The ability to consciously perceive and contribute to a soundscape fosters a feeling of inclusion, belonging and connection. Programs and practices that disseminate soundscape literacy would be foundational in empowering locals in specific environments. This sonic awareness would allow for the possibility of a practical bottom up contribution to the building of a more diverse soundscape and with that a more inclusive, tolerant and diverse culture.





 Work Cited


1.Atkinson, Niall. Thinking through Noise, Building toward Silence: Creating a Sound Mind and Sound Architecture in the Premodern City. Massachusetts: Grey Room, 2015.

2.Mags Adams et al. Sustainable Soundscapes: Noise Policy and the Urban Experience. Salford: Routledge, 2006.

3.Dale et al. Socioeconomic status and environmental noise exposure in Montreal, Canada. Montreal: BioMed Central, 2015

4.Dzhambov et al. Neighborhood noise pollution as a determinant of displaced aggression: A pilot study. Plovdiv: Medknow Publications & Media Pvt. Ltd., 2014.

5.City of Vancouver Noise Bylaw

6.Vancouver Foundation Survey 2012