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Noises off

by Phil Houseal
Mar 9, 2011


I stepped out of the high school gym early one cold Saturday morning. It was typical of so many other mornings, but for some reason on this day I noticed the sounds around me.

As I walked to my car, the squeak of sneakers on hardwood faded behind me, and new noises rose up. Sparrows squabbling. The sharp protest of a door hinge.

The faint hum of an air compressor on the far side of the vocational building. A diesel truck rattling into Denny’s parking lot. The scuff of shoes on uneven asphalt.

More sparrows.

It struck me that these are noises we only notice if they are not there. They are the background sounds of life.

When my kids were young we used to crawl up on the roof of our house on Burbank Street at night. We would just lie there listening. We made a game of trying to identify as many sounds as we could. I was always amazed at the cacophony we never notice. Traffic, television, the screams of kids playing, sirens wailing, and dogs barking - always dogs barking.

Here’s an experiment you can do.

Right now focus on the sounds in your environment. Just listen. As I write I hear clocks ticking from three rooms, the refrigerator compressor humming, water dripping, a door swinging in the breeze, curtains brushing against the window screen.

Don’t scoff at the importance of unnoticed noise. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, irritating ambient noise can negatively affect people’s health by increasing stress that results in high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers and migraines.

But the other extreme - complete silence - can be even more unsettling. There may be a survival reason for this. Darwin observed that social animals stay in contact through natural sounds such as foraging and feeding. When threatened they communicate danger by complete silence and freezing. According to this theory, that is why humans feel distress when surrounded by utter silence. How many of us keep the TV on when we are alone, hum while we work, or “whistle past the graveyard?”

I once worked on filming a PBS pilot in Florida. After shooting one scene about manatees, the film crew drove to remote estuary and set up their sound recording equipment on an empty dock. I was bewildered as they instructed us to sit silently while they rolled tape.

For 15 minutes we simply sat while they recorded the cries of wheeling curlews, waves kissing pilings, the breeze playing reeds.

They were taping “atmosphere” which they would dub over the action scenes. They explained that the audience wouldn’t notice these sounds, unless they weren’t there.

There is music all around. With our speech and songs and poetry, we try to arrange natural sounds into an unnatural order. I suggest we occasionally rewind the original soundtrack of life, and gather more material.

Listen to the music that is already playing.