Sound of silence increasingly rare as noise pollution rises

Quiet seems to be reserved for those who have the cash to visit spas or go away somewhere to sit on a beach and watch the sunset. But silence should not be a luxury, says Jo Davies.

Background music, blaring movie theatre sound, omnipresent headphones make silence a luxury, says Jo Davies

From restaurants to buses to movie theatres, noise pollution has reached the level where few of us ever get to enjoy silence, says Jo Davies. (Shutterstock)

Can anybody tell me why we are so afraid of silence nowadays?

Forget the sound of a pin dropping. I'm not sure I could hear a cannon going off over the "background music" that's now the standard at my local McDonald's restaurant.

Before you say anything, I'll address the elephant in the room: yes, I'm but a stone's throw from the half-century mark of my life. Ahem. I know that many people complain about loud music as they get older. It seems as the years pass by, the less tolerance I have for music I can't comfortably talk over. So yes, I do know that I've changed.

I used to love listening to bands at the bar; stood right beside the speakers without a thought for my poor ears. I toted my Walkman all over my town, cranking Wham! and Billy Idol as loud as I could without my parents giving me the stinkeye. Every time my brother was out, I snuck into his room to blast Tragically Hip and Blue Rodeo on his stereo (sorry, bro), all the better to get the full concert effect. Music was always part of my life and for the most part I felt like the louder, the better.

'We are raising a generation that has zero clue what it's like not to be surrounded with noise all the time,' says Jo Davies. (Stan Olszewski/Dallas Morning News/Associated Press)

It wasn't until I was in my 30s that I started to complain about the volume of music. Suddenly it seemed that the music at socials or clubs was too loud to have a proper conversation. Never mind the tinnitus that started to make itself known with a vengeance, hissing away every time I found myself in a quiet room. I went from enjoying loud songs to turning them down on a regular basis.

It's not just restaurants and retail stores that are problematic. Movie theatres take the problem to a dangerous level. The volume there reaches painfully loud levels, especially when it comes to ads and movie trailers.

Noise pollution isn't just annoying

A bit of online research reveals that there are no regulations when it comes to how loud movie theatres can play these items. A 2014 article in the journal Canadian Audiologist quotes a study by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration that said while 85 decibels used to be the practical limit (above this level, analog sound is distorted), the advent of digital sound meant that the volume in movie theatres can easily surpass 85 decibels with no distortion.

The OSHA has reported peak noise levels in theatres as high as 133.9 decibels.

Just how loud is 85 decibels? The OSHA has likened it to about the level of a power lawn mower, which, as anyone trying to sleep in on a summer's morning knows, is not the quietest of machinery. Studies have shown that prolonged exposure to noise above 85 decibels can actually cause permanent hearing loss.

As for 133.9 decibels, this website says it's equivalent to a 200-person marching band playing next to you, a fact that would give even John Philip Sousa pause.

The thing about all types of noise pollution is that it isn't just annoying; there are actual negative consequences beyond the horror of hearing loss, according to the UN's World Health Organization.

It can increase stress, disrupt your sleep, and aggravate conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers and migraines. Worst of all is that your body doesn't become accustomed to noise pollution: the effects get worse the longer you're exposed to it.

Silence shouldn't be a luxury

It isn't just oldster me that feels like I'm drowning in a sea of noise every time I venture outside my home. I recently polled my teenage sons, as well as a group of my kids' friends. All of them said they struggle with the volume of the (so-called) background music that is regularly played at fast-food places and retail stores. When a gaggle of tweens and teens start complaining that something is too loud, you know it's a problem.

It occurs to me that we are raising a generation that has zero clue what it's like not to be surrounded with noise all the time.

Headphones and earbuds are omnipresent and leak noise everywhere, video games are filled with explosions and gunfire, and long trips on the bus or train which used to be filled with (relative) quiet are now taken up with folks on their cellphones who just cannot wait to tell their best friend about who texted them five minutes ago or their favourite bit of the latest Game of Thrones episode.

So what's the solution to all of this unnecessary and potentially harmful noise? The easiest one would be to eliminate all technology, but that's about as likely as The Donald and his buddy "Rocket Boy" Kim Jong-un sitting down for a friendly chinwag over a cuppa.

No, I'd settle for restaurants, malls and theatres agreeing to lower the volume — at least enough so I don't have to spend my golden years perfecting my head tilt and saying, "What's that you say, sonny?"

Until that day, it seems to me that quiet will be reserved for those who have the cash to visit spas or go away somewhere to sit on a beach and watch the sunset.

For the record, silence should not be a luxury. The ability to sit quietly by yourself is not a bad thing. It's in the quiet that we can reflect on ourselves, our hopes and plans for the future. It's part of being human.

All the rest is just … noise.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Jo Davies is a freelance writer and office assistant who is never at a loss for an opinion. She is currently writing her first novel, set in Jamaica.