Let's get loud: The story of noise

First aired on Spark (27/04/13)

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The modern world is full of noise. From traffic to cellphones to your irritating coworker typing in the next cubicle, it's almost impossible to get a moment's peace. But much as we find today's technological noisiness irksome, annoying noise has a long history. And Mike Goldsmith knows a thing or two about noise. The acoustician and science writer is the author of Discord: The Story of Noise. He spoke to Nora Young on Spark about how our noise complaints are nothing new.

Even Julius Caesar had sensitive ears -- he initiated the first anti-noise law when he forbade the entry of clattery carts into the city of Rome during daylight hours so that he could have some peace and quiet during the day.

But the world got even louder in the 1800s. "I think the modern battle against noise has its roots in the Industrial Revolution," said Goldsmith. His book makes it clear how strong the connection is between noise and technological developments and progress. "Each new technological development has brought in its wake complaints and problems to do with the noise it generates," said Goldsmith. "Partly because of the fact that the new noise may have added to the background cacophony of life...and the unfamiliarity of the sound means that people pay attention to it."

Noise that we take for granted today, like the rumbling of cars, was once as irritating and alarming to people as a particularly obnoxious cellphone ringtone. The widening use of electricity also had to do with the rise in noise and noise complaints, Goldsmith said. "In Paris, for instance, there was a big increase in complaints about noise right at the time when street lighting became more widespread, because it meant that people could extend their working and playing lives...you could drink late into the night because you knew you'd get home OK because you could see where you're going."

Naturally, the most irritating noise is the one that's bugging you right now, or every day, or outside your living room window. One story that Goldsmith shares in his book is that of the legendary 19th-century mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage, who also happened to be a notorious crank who feuded -- loudly, it seems -- with the street musicians in his neighbourhood, trying to get them banned. "This attitude generated, as one might expect, quite a lot of retaliatory noise," said Goldsmith. "One of his neighbours, every day for a month, blew a whistle loudly towards Babbage's house."

So is the world actually noisier now than it has been in the past, or have people always felt intruded upon by the noise of their neighbours?

"I think that one thing that has changed in all cities is that noise is more widespread in the sense of place and time," said Goldsmith. "Around the turn of the 19th century, London went from being a city full of sounds -- and it was always thought of as a noisy city -- [to being] a city with a sort of hum, all those sounds blended together."

"That type of soundscape leads to a feeling of unease," he said. "One reason for the rise of iPods and mobile [phones] is the desire amongst individuals to mark out their own acoustic territory."