Radio·Enright Essays

The war against noise goes back centuries, but Michael Enright argues it's never been worse than now

According to the World Health Organization, noise pollution is second in harm to humans just behind air pollution. A new book sets out to clinically examine our increasingly noisy world and plots a way to find its opposite — silence.

From music in restaurants to digital information overload, noise in all forms is inescapable, Enright laments

A large airplane flies low over downtown Richmond (David Horemans/CBC)

This is part of a series of columns by Michael Enright, reflecting his more than 50 years as a journalist and CBC broadcaster covering Canadian and global news events.

Noise. It is annoying. It is everywhere. It is exhausting, stress-making and dangerous.

It keeps our nerves on a knife edge. We can run from it but we cannot hide.

According to the World Health Organization, noise pollution is second in harm to humans just behind air pollution. If you live in a big city in Canada there is no escape. Garbage trucks, leaf blowers, pneumatic drills, muscle cars, motorcycles, buses, subways and sirens. It is there when we wake up, it trails after us minute by minute until we go to sleep. Or try to. We are smothered by noise.

How one restaurant solved its noise problem

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Featured VideoAfter receiving lots of feedback from customers, Nick Politi installed ceiling panels to dampen the sound at his Windsor, Ont., restaurant, Nico Taverna. Using the SoundPrint app, Marketplace tested noise levels before and after the change.

The WHO guideline for proper sleeping is less than 40 decibels of sound outside bedrooms. A 2017 study by Toronto Public Health revealed that 92 per cent of Toronto's population is trying to sleep in a noise environment above 45 dB.

Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee has been fighting noise pollution, especially excessive street noise, for years. In his column in June he wrote about a friend who was awakened at 3:30 a.m. by motorcycles racing each other on a deserted parkway.

Much of the transportation noise is deliberate. Muscle cars and some high-end luxury cars can be fitted with special mufflers deliberately designed not to diminish engine noise but to substantially increase it. 

Noise levels in restaurants and bars can be frustrating for many patrons. (Hunter Bliss Images/Shutterstock)

For Gee, the noise demons are cars and motorbikes. For me, it's restaurants.

Popular, busy restaurants are predictably noisy. But to add to normal noise levels, most restaurants pipe in loud and exceedingly terrible music.

Toronto media owner Moses Znaimer felt that restaurant noise had  become such a modern scourge that he launched the Anti-Noise Pollution League in 2011, which included a user-generated list of quiet restaurants

The league's noble efforts don't seem to have been noticeably effective.

When dining out, I used to carry two sets of business cards, some yellow and some blue. The blue cards are for quiet, no-music restaurants. The text congratulates the manager and announces that I will recommend the establishment to friends. The yellow cards inform the management of musical dining establishments that I will be telling friends to boycott their restaurant. In years of asking around, I have never encountered a customer who has asked for music to be played at a restaurant.

The war against noise has a long and storied tradition. In 1921, English engineer Henry John Spooner pushed for an "Anti-noise Day" or a "Day of Silence." India liberator Mahatma Gandhi began a practice of passing every Monday in silence. He would attend necessary meetings, but would communicate by pad and pen. Florence Nightingale, in the midst of her nursing endeavours, referred to unnecessary noise as "the cruel absence of care."

A new book sets out to clinically examine our increasingly noisy world and plots a way to find its opposite — silence. Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise, by Justin Zorn and Leigh Marz, is both a warning and a prescription. But the authors agree that finding a welcoming silence is an uphill struggle.

They trace the quest for silence back more than 2,500 years to the days of Pythagoras, who urged his students: "Learn to be silent. Let your quiet mind listen and absorb." To Pythagoras, silence was the key to wisdom.

All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.- Blaise Pascal

But in the clamorous din of the 21st century, we are afraid of silence. We are fearful of simply being quiet. We need constant stimuli in order to prove something to ourselves; perhaps that we are alive and not alone. The fear of silence is the fear of the unknown. Perhaps the 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal was right when he said, "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone."

Zorn and Marz explore the taxonomy of noise through three categories: auditory noise (e.g. cars and trucks), internal noise and informational noise   — the constant flooding of our consciousness of mindless information. This is the noise of texts, emails and social media. 

I've been chasing the Golden Fleece of silence for decades and I have mostly failed in the attempt. I have even tried the so-called "Digital Sabbath" when I turn off screens and phones from sundown Friday night to sundown Saturday.

My island of silence and sanity is travelling to the village of Weston in the Green Mountains of Vermont, and visiting the Benedictine monks of the Weston Priory. Before COVID-19, I would spend a week in the priory, usually in the fall, without a phone or a computer or any unnecessary contact with the outside world.

Meals are taken in silence. Dormitory rooms are dead quiet. I've never tried it for longer than a week. Someday I will. And I will keep looking for other islands of silence.

In a crazy and noisy world, I don't think we have any other choice.


Michael Enright

Columnist and host

Michael Enright is the former host of The Sunday Edition on CBC Radio One. During his long career as a journalist, he has hosted other CBC Radio flagship shows, including This Country in the Morning, As It Happens, Rewind and This Morning. He is the recipient of three honorary doctorates and the Order of Canada.