A Problem With Noise, Radio 4
Soundscape of 1969, Radio 2
Keep that infernal racket down – you're drowning out the whales
Sunday 23 August 2009
As the Buzzcocks so sagely observed, noise annoys. The world is getting too loud. I SAID, THE WORLD IS GETTING TOO LOUD! And as the sound recordist Chris Watson found out in A Problem with Noise, studies show that noise raises our blood pressure, even when we're asleep. Still, at least we're not birds or whales, the very fabric of whose society is under threat from man's acoustic pollution.
When male great tits are on the pull, for example, their voices slip seductively down the register. (Some even don medallions and chest wigs, apparently.) But traffic noise means they're drowned out, so they have to sing higher, which is a turn-off for the girls. Result? Fewer great tits.
It's a similar story for the whales, whose infrasonic communications should be counted as one of the wonders of the world. As Chris Clark of the Bioacoustic Research Program at Cornell University said, "I can hear a blue whale singing off Newfoundland, off the Grand Banks of Canada, 1,600 miles away."
Whale sounds have such a staggering range because they're so low. But it's like cars and great tits (see how I've resisted all those cheap jokes? I'm quite proud of myself): ships and planes emanate what Clark calls "acoustic smog", which the whales counteract by going higher up the register. But then their voices don't carry for thousands of miles. So they shut up.
If we're deafening the birds and whales, it might come as some consolation to them that we're doing the same to ourselves. A rise of three decibels in a sound reduces by half the daily recommended time we should be exposed to that sound. The RDA of an average rock concert is about 30 seconds. At 100 per cent volume we should listen to our personal stereos for five minutes a day; reduce it to 60 or 70 per cent and that goes up to five or six hours. Turn that music down!
Behind the voices, A Problem with Noise was awash with the stuff: birdsong and whale chatter, waves crashing, traffic humming, jets roaring (one omission: people bellowing into their mobiles, the greatest aural irritant of modern times). There was more sound-collage action yesterday in Soundscape of 1969. It was essentially a glorified Sounds of the 60s, with records and news reports juxtaposed – you know the kind of thing: "Street Fighting Man" and riots in Ulster; "Space Oddity" and the Moon landing; The Beatles' "The End" and Altamont. Its strongest point was the news pieces, relics even more prehistoric than the music. One story concerned a squat in a house on Hyde Park Corner which was letting in anyone who said they needed somewhere to live. The plan was to house homeless families, but the exceedingly posh reporter wasn't convinced. "Some are obviously deserving cases," he sniffed. "Others, I thought, needed a good spanking." Down with the oiks!
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