The Mystery of Noise


Music is in the ear of the beholder.  Some of you would be very annoyed if I turned up a Death Metal track while you’re reading this blog.  Others would feel; “Yea, that’s it!” 

Some of you would wax rapturous over Bach’s Air on a G String. While I’m afraid that music would drive away our Death Metal lovers.  What’s noise for one person is exciting, emotive, familiar music to another.  These types of preferences result from cultural experience, peer group pressures, the relation of positive life experience to a piece of music, resonance with the music’s performance energy, emotional content and other cultural experiences around the music.  But both of these pieces qualify as a ‘musical’ experience for some group of listeners. 

Noise is well……just noise.  If you walk into a coffee shop and the sound of the food refrigerator prevents you from hearing the counter person, you are experiencing noise – not music.  What’s the difference? 

Music contains various sounds of pitch and duration set to a rhythm that for some not-fully-understood-reason our brain recognizes as ‘music’.  The theories range from speech identifying brain functions, to ancient song and dance mating rituals.  (I’ll leave you to choose your preference.) 

Noise however is not recognized as music, and the brain will begin to work to overcome (listen ‘harder’), or filter out (think of a notch filter).  Both of these functions require additional energy resources and can result in short-term fatigue and long-term health hazards. 

One study showed that women who lived near airports experienced higher levels of disease.  We have all experienced noise that ‘gets on our nerves’.  The reality is that noise does more harm than a simple annoyance.  Nighttime noise can interrupt our deep sleep patterns which increases daytime fatigue and leads to poor performance. 

Ongoing noise causes our brain to work harder to filter out the noise source.  And sometimes this ongoing steady noise (like a loud AC unit in a hotel) can mask a more annoying, irregular noise like city sirens and car alarms.  I’ll take the loud AC unit sound, but after time the steady, loud noise of the AC unit will contribute to fatigue as your brain works to filter out that stimuli as non-important, non-threatening data. (But how will you hear if a lion approaches your cave while you sleep?  Most of us (when sober) wake up for sounds because those who didn’t are no longer members-in-good-standing of our gene pool.) 

Listen, wherever you are and if you can control your environment, get rid of noise.  It’s not good for you or your health.  Why did those ancient holy men always seek out the ‘holy cave’?  The HVAC was quiet and efficient and the temperature was steady.  They could then hear what was really important as they turned their attention inward to plumb the depths of consciousness and unravel the secrets of their existence.  For you, the benefits might simply be a better nights’ sleep, but it’s well worth the effort. 

James Schaller, CMP is a clinical musician and consultant who trains caregivers how to use therapeutic music, and consults with healthcare facilities to create soundscapes that benefit patients and staff.

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