Give Your Ears A Rest and "4:33"
In the past, I've talked about high-decibel sounds and how they can damage your hearing permanently. Yet, what about the constant, frequent, medium volume man-made sounds that envelope our days? It's around this time of year that I notice how much sound I hear, mostly because of the constant holiday music, but what about everything else?
Unless you have a sound-proof studio or practice room, you are surrounded by anthrophony, or man made sound in your soundscape of life. This includes language, music, mechanical sounds, and all the sounds that human inventions make: cars, car radio, air fan, trash pickup, etc. The opposite of anthrophony is biophony, or non-human sounds produced by natural organisms in their natural environment. When you go to a truly untouched place, whether it's a forest, lake, prarie, etc., there is a complete lack of human sound (anthrophony) and only biophony (bird calls, organisms,etc) and geophony (trees, wind, etc.). That's not to say that biophony is necessarily quieter in volume (hello rainforest parrots!), but anthrophony is associated with stress, muscle tension, and disruption of homeostasis. In Bernie Krause' book, "The Great Animal Orchestra," he delves into the chaotic sound pollution that fills our days, and the impacts our noise has upon natural environments. One of the more distressing lines of the book is when he notes that many animals are deeply affected by human noise, "In the most severe case, where the noise exceeds a level of tolerance, many species of whales and seals will beach themselves and die." This is also true of domesticated animals, zoo animals, etc. If you've ever noticed a dog terrified by a firecracker or construction noise, you can see a small glimpse of the impact of anthrophony. In Katy Bowman's "Move Your DNA," she writes that "Distress in zoo animals has been associated with both the continuous unnaturally loud and frequent sounds they're exposed to as well as the absence of an environment's natural sounds-biophony." (149) My question is how are we impacting ourselves?
First of all, I think John Cage was definitely onto something bigger with his work "4:33," especially nowadays. Notice how many sounds you ignore in your day-the sound of electricity, the heat fan, the click of your keys on your keyboard, the cell phone pings and rings, and maybe the din of constant music or sound. I've noticed that there are times when my ears just need a break from music, whether I'm walking or at the gym or in my car. There are times when my environment is loud and I just feel better wearing earplugs and introverting my attention. Most of the studies about human-produced sound and stress has been observing animals, habitats, and environmental change, but I believe that we are also impacting ourselves and our stress levels with the constant noise. You may know those white noise machines, or the new age recordings that feature geophony and biophony with recorded wave sounds, animal calls, rain, etc. Humans crave natural sounds too, and the constant input of mechanical sound can be very stressful and overwhelming. A study entitled "Decibel Hell" details some of the effects of this noise: the 50dB freeway sounds, the stereos of neighboring cars...can increase blood pressure, change breathing and affect sleep. You know this from when you spend the night in a noisy hotel or apartment, and you can't sleep.
-Close your eyes right now, wherever you are, and notice the sounds in the space you're in. If the lights are on, you might hear the frequencies of electricity, and if the central heat is on, there might be a circulating fan. Notice that your ears and brain ignore these sounds most of the time.
-Take a sound break. Whether you're driving, walking, taking the subway, or just at home, don't put the earphones in or turn the radio on, but just work in silence. (Or put in earplugs). Many people in larger cities now combat sound with sound by wearing headphones everywhere, which fights noise with louder noise.
-Notice if you do better in quiet environments (whether you study, read, write, etc.), or if you prefer a sonically busy environment like a coffee shop. Challenge yourself to be in a quiet environment, and notice if your body is hungry for stimulation and sound, or if you're able to adjust to the silence.
-Think of a time when noise has increased your stress level, whether it was being honked at in traffic or at the airport or at work.
The musique concrete folks of the 50's and 60's were definitely onto something with their recording of natural and unnatural sounds, whether they recorded it for music creation (R. Murray Schafer) or for manipulation and exploration (Stockhausen, Ligeti, Rautavaraa, and many many more). They all wanted us to start to notice the sounds around us, not just the music.