The Impossibility of Silence

By Ashlyn E. Tom

            Sometimes people seek silence. They want a room to study in, so they go to a library. They want a place to meditate, so they go to a temple. They want a spot to relax, so they go to the park. We think of these places as “silent” because we’re so used to the sounds of much louder locations, full of chatter and traffic and other “noise”. Certainly, R. Murray Schafer was concerned with “noise”. But the places we think of as silent may not be as quiet as we believe. By making audio recordings in the quiet locations, perhaps it can be better understood what silence means and how noises can appear in even the quietest of places—and if silence is even truly possible to observe.

            The term “soundscape” was coined by R. Murray Schafer in the 1970s (Thompson, 2002). He used it to refer to a sonic environment (Thompson, 2002), the sounds that are present and observable in a given place. By listening to a specific soundscape, we can better understand the people living in that environment, and how that affects them when these sounds change (Schafer, 1993).  Studying the environment based on the auditory increases our observation and therefore comprehension and resulting inferences than simply studying it based on sight alone. It was an important term for doing anthropology in sound. Schafer was, however, concerned with what he called noise pollution, deeming it “a world problem” (Schafer, 1993). Modern technology has without a doubt altered the soundscape. We now experience sounds, such as cars, airplanes, music blasting from a smartphone, that would have been completely absent from the soundscape just a little over a hundred years ago. But does the noisiness of a sound really make it pollution? Would it be better to have silence in place of these noises? Do we have to escape these “noisy” sounds to have a pure soundscape?

            Perhaps a good way to study and measure sounds and noisiness versus silence would be to make recordings in quiet places. Inspired by our short recording assignment on “The Quietest Place” from Jace Clayton, I have selected several local, quiet places at which I have taken sound recordings, as well as two videos I found that were recorded in anechoic chambers:

  • Peaceful Places: Davis, CA, although not a large city with millions of people and the sounds that accompany it, is still not necessarily “quiet”. Relative to a place like New York City or San Francisco, Davis is certainly so. But its general soundscape is still relatively full of noise. Music plays at the Farmers’ Market. Cars stop and go through the town. Students chatter on their lunch breaks at the Coffee House. However, there are locations in Davis that are fairly quiet. When I was attempting to locate these locations, I associated “quiet” with “peaceful,” and went from there, recording in places where one might go to relax in nature or think deeply. These places ended up including the UC Davis Arboretum, where one might lay out on the grass to breathe between classes; residential streets away from the hubbub of downtown, where one might take a walk in thought; and a small memorial garden, where one might go to read or write or simply ponder. When people seek quietness and silence, these may be among the places they visit.
  • The Quietest Places in the World: In case a tranquil location such as the Arboretum is not quiet enough to understand silence, I have also chosen two YouTube videos that showcase anechoic chambers. (Unfortunately, I was unable to arrange a visit to an anechoic chamber myself, as the closest one was being used for research and they could not accommodate me before this project was due.) The two I have chosen for this project are the Microsoft Audio Labs anechoic chamber in Redmond, Washington and the anechoic chamber at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Anechoic chambers are extremely soundproof rooms padded with specially-designed foam placed over thick concrete walls, which in combination work to absorb the echo of noise by preventing the reflection of sound waves. Many are even built to block out sounds that are below the range of human hearing. The way anechoic chambers are engineered renders them the quietest places in the world.

            Although the recordings I made were taken on three different devices, they are all very much the same—a standard modern-day smartphone with a mono microphone. On the positive side, recordings could be made easily and conveniently at any time. However, this also means that my audio recordings are not top-quality, and my microphone may not be able to pick up more subtle sounds that I was able to hear when making the recordings, such as the sound of a plane flying off in the distance in the memorial garden. When I made these recordings, sometimes I was trying to record “silence”, like in my main arboretum recording, in the suburbs in the daytime, and in the memorial garden. Other times, I was actively attempting to record noises that I heard in these quiet locations, like the bird on the residential street, or the maintenance noises in the arboretum. When I was editing my audio using Audacity, I tried to amplify sounds my recorder did not pick up as well as I had experienced and added fades to create a cleaner beginning and end to some tracks. I also cut out sections of handling noise and any unintentional wind noise, but tried to leave in areas where the soundscape seemed extremely quiet or “silent”, as that was the original goal of the project. Additionally, I tried to vary my modes of attention during these recordings. I was actively listening when I took the recordings of specific sounds, such as the cricket as I was walking home, but I also tried passively listening by simply turning my recorder on and carrying about as I normally would, which I attempted in the memorial garden. Though my methodology has room for improvement (as it may have helped quite a bit to take the recordings using a higher-quality microphone), it was successful enough to provide valuable insight on quiet places and silence in the soundscape.

      The most evident thing when these recordings are played back is the noise. These recordings were taken in places where people might go when they seek silence—but where is the silence? Some of these places have sounds that are less audible than others, but they are by no means completely soundless. Ducks flap their wings and splash lake water at the arboretum. Away from all the traffic, cars were still heard zooming along the streets. Perhaps most surprisingly, when YouTuber Veritasium recorded in the anechoic chamber, his microphone picked up his heartbeat.

          The observable rhythms in the soundscape are another particularly interesting aspect. According to Lefebvre, there are two types of rhythms: cyclical and alternating:

“These last rhythms…would be more cyclical, of large and simple intervals, at the heart of livelier, alternating rhythms, at brief intervals…The interaction of diverse, repetitive and different rhythms animates, as one says, the street and the neighbourhood” (Lefebvre, 2004).

That is, cyclical rhythms are simpler and more regular, like the rise and fall of the Sun every day. Alternating rhythms, on the other hand, are rhythms that are more varied such as the come and go of a regular customer. It is particularly important to note that when Lefebvre talks about rhythm, he is not talking about the regular beat of musical rhythm (although that is included). Rather, he means something that completes a cycle, repeating itself but never truly being the same as the first time around. This cycle does not necessarily have to repeat itself at regular intervals to be considered a rhythm; it merely has to come full circle.

            In my project, several rhythms are noticeable. Many of these are alternating rhythms—the splashing of ducks, the bird’s irregular song, the cricket and its varying chirping. Some appear alternating relative to the environment, such as the maintenance cart passing by, but relative to itself, the motor gives out a regular hum, seemingly cyclical in nature. But the most cyclical rhythm of this project is the steady heartbeat in Veritasium’s recording, regularly pumping blood to his body in an otherwise silent room. Because we hear these rhythms we must admit that in quiet places, sound is still very much possible. And where sound happens, silence does not. Even at the end of the Microsoft anechoic chamber recording, where it seems we hear silence, we don’t. That is because although the room is silent, we ourselves are still observing it, and with that comes the noises around us. It could be the traffic outside the window, the air conditioning unit blowing, the rustle of our hair against our headphones—or even if truly silent otherwise, there is still rhythm, still sound, in the beating of our hearts. Because we are human, because we are alive, there is no such thing as observable silence in this world.

            Silence is impossible, but “noise” is very much so. Schafer uses “noise pollution” as a term that is almost synonymous with sounds of modernity. But modern sound—the sounds of traffic and airplanes and motorized maintenance carts, and all sorts of other noises of technology—is an essential feature of today’s world. These sounds surround and impact us, and to rid our world of these noises would result in defying the reason Schafer says we should study soundscape: to study the relationship between people and the environment, and what happens when these sounds change.

            So to answer the question “Does the noisiness of a sound really make it pollution?”—no, not by Schafer’s definition of pollution. He talks about how new sounds are invading the environment that are pollutants because they are more intense (Schafer, 1993). But intensity is relative. In our day to day lives, we may not hear subtle sounds like our heartbeat, especially over the sound of something “new” like a car, but also not over the sound of noises that have existed for a long time, like the chirp of a bird or the chatter of passersby. However, in the quietness of an anechoic chamber, the human heartbeat seems much louder. Perhaps it would be even louder if we were to observe it ourselves rather than through a recording.

           Moreover, “new” does not necessarily equal “noise pollution”. To reiterate, Schafer refers to soundscape as a way to study the interactions between people and their environment, and what happens when these sounds change (Schafer, 1993). These modern sounds are a part of how people perceive their environment, and they are a part of changes in sound. How can our world be modern without modern sounds? It wouldn’t be. If we removed everything deemed “modern”, people would be confused because their environment would no longer be the same. Removing all “noise pollution” would fundamentally change the soundscape and defeat its ultimate purpose, which is to study the relationship between people and their auditory environment. The planes flying overhead, for example, or the cars that raced by as I made my recording in the memorial garden, clearly show how people have changed with their environment. They built these tools, and in turn have altered their environment and the soundscape. But this is not an inherently bad thing; this is not “noise pollution”. It is proof that people are adaptive. We should observe them and accept them as a part of our modern world’s soundscape, for if we removed them, it would mean that you are no longer observing the relationship between people and their environment, destroying the purpose of studying soundscape in the first place.

            We will never observe true silence. To observe, we must be alive, but to be alive means hearing sound. In peaceful locations like the arboretum, noises are all around us from other people, animals, the wind rustling plants… In the quietest places on Earth, anechoic chambers, noises are heard within us, like our own breath and heartbeat. We cannot hear complete silence. Escaping the “noise” of modernity does not necessitate silence. And why would we want to? The modern soundscape is no less a soundscape than the recording inside an anechoic chamber. The newness of a sound and its relative intensity should not render it noise pollution. Rather, it should be observed and taken as a fundamental part of that specific soundscape. If I were to edit out the cars, the planes, the carts, and anything else Schafer would deem pollution, I would be altering the soundscape of a modern suburban city, no longer able to observe the environment for what it is and how it has changed, and what people hear. I would be a researcher throwing out data and effectively skewing my results—something which is heavily frowned upon in the scientific community.

            Noises appear everywhere, even in the quietest of places. Silence is possible, but observing it is not. There will always be sound, and sound is an important part of our environment and affects how we interact with it. That is the goal of studying soundscape, after all, and to obtain the truest representation of a soundscape, we should accept and listen to all of the sounds in it. By listening to quiet places, I have a greater understanding of the inescapability of rhythms, the changes modern technology has had on our lives and soundscape, and how “noises” surround and impact us. I found an appreciation for sound in studying the impossibility of silence.

 

Bibliography

Readings:

Lefebvre, Henri. 2004. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. London, UK: Continuum.

Schafer, R. Murray. 1993. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books. Print.

Thompson, Emily. 2002. “The Origins of Modern Acoustics.” In The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933. MIT Press.

YouTube Links:

Microsoft Anechoic Chamber – “360 Video: Inside the Quietest Place on Earth”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFFKAdQkrWA

Veritasium’s Coverage at Brigham Young University’s Anechoic Chamber – “Can Silence Actually Drive You Crazy?” (if desired: recording in full in the description box). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXVGIb3bzHI

Mentioned:

Clayton, Jace. “The Quietest Place” Assignment. http://www.theartassignment.com/assignments/quietest-place

 

Recordings: (All by Ashlyn Tom)

Arboretum [from The Quietest Place Assignment]

Bird and Car

Cricket

Maintenance Washing Sound

Nighttime Memorial Warden

Motorized Maintenance Cart

Rolling Cart, Footsteps, Airplane

Summer Suburb

 

Cover Photo by Ashlyn Tom. Taken at the UC Davis Arboretum. July 21, 2015.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s