Noise in the modern world—from cacophonous to carefully controlled

Woman covering her ears

Listen to Brenda read the story

It’s that time of year again: The leaf blowers are back. They add to an increasingly noisy world, but it’s also possible to create pleasant sounds or eliminate them altogether.

It’s fall. The heat of summer has subsided and leaves blanket the ground with colorful carpets. But before you get a chance to enjoy traipsing across this kaleidoscopic landscape, an annual ritual kicks in: Men wearing ear protectors that look like cupcakes arrive with leaf blowers to blast the leaves away. These ear-shattering devices add an extra layer of racket to an already noisy world.

Leaf blowers have mostly escaped regulation, but there are places where activists have succeeded in curtailing them. In Washington, D.C., locals banded together to take action against them. James Fallows, a writer for The Atlantic magazine, discovered that they are not just loud but also highly polluting. Leaf-blower technology has not advanced the way it has for cars and many other consumer goods. Thanks to the support of a local councilwoman and a lot of grass-roots work, legislation banning leaf blowers went into effect in Washington, D.C. on January 1st of this year.

An alternative to eliminating noise would be to transform it into something pleasant. There are plenty of examples of this. Take Ferrari. When a Ferrari growls past you on the Autobahn, it is no coincidence that you might first think that a lion on wheels has somehow just whizzed past at 250 km an hour. That’s because its manufacturer has a workshop dedicated to producing just the right sound and uses a noise consultantnow there’s a job title for youto create it.

Loud, yes, but I’ll take a fake lion over a simulated jackhammer anytime. And given the high price tag, there aren’t enough Ferraris around to create any real noise pollution by themselves.

Tesla has taken sound control to new heights. Teslas are computers on wheels so they are programmable, right down to a custom horn honk. They even give the driver the choice of a custom engine sound. Since electric motors are silent, adding a sound is a good idea for safety reasons since having noiseless cars on the road is dangerous, as anyone who has had one pass by unexpectedly can attest.

As an aside, it’s only a matter of time before all cars are electric or hydrogen-propelled and thus soundless. They will likely digitize not just the car but their horns, too, and the word “honk” will lose its onomatopoetic charm.

Digital technology could just as well be used to customize sounds for many other things. Like bread knives. Each bread-cutting motion could be embellished with a haiyaa! sound. Why not outfit knives with this bread battle cry or even actual sword noises.

It’s the little things in life that make the difference.

No need to stop at knives. All manner of things could be acoustically enhanced with digital technology. Doorbells could be programmed to sing “Knock-knock-knocking on Brenda’s door,” and the iconic German coffee jingle gleaned from the old German song, Der Kaffee ist fertig, could be embedded into coffeemakers to tell you when the coffee is ready.

Trains also contribute to ambient noise. They screech pulling into and out of the station, the beeps warning that the doors are closing are loud, and the station acoustics are often so poor that they render announcements unintelligible.

In airports, passengers are also bombarded with all manner of announcements and their giant size makes for lousy acoustics. Waiting for a flight can be auditory agony, and it doesn’t stop once you board the flight, either.

“This is your purser…” (why is a handbag in charge of my flight anyway?), “Please fasten your seat belts, place your luggage under the seat…” etc.

It’s a relief when the plane takes off and the announcements cease. But then a pilot with a gravelly voice pipes up from the cockpit.

“This is your captain speaking. Welcome on board our flight to Paris. We’re flying at 10,000 feet…the weather is partly cloudy…we expect to arrive with about a 10 minute-delay…” Etc.

When the captain is done growling, you just have to deal with the roar of the aircraft engines. 

Airplanes, like airports, were not designed with acoustics in mind.

Unless you are departing from Mumbai airport. Despite its enormous size–then again, everything in India is huge–it is an oasis of quiet. No announcements, no exhortations for someone with an intriguing name to report to Gate X, no nothing. Just an ocean of well-lit silence, dotted with luxury boutiques and refreshment stands. What sweet relief and a delightful contrast to other airports. It’s an eye-opener as well: Modern travel does not have to make you want to close your eyes, put in earplugs and rock back and forth to maintain some semblance of sanity.

This brings us full circle. Ferrari hired the company Brüel and Kjær to create the perfect sound for their cars and Mumbai airport enlisted the same company to eliminate sound. Now if only the leaf blower manufacturers would get with the program. Until then, I’ve got my earplugs and noise-canceling headphones handy. It’s just a matter of time before the guys with the cupcakes on their ears appear in the courtyard outside my window.

Brenda Arnold

Title photo by Ketut Subiyanto at Pexels

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