Sound or Noise? What are you hearing?

I’d like you to imagine a scenario. You’re sat at home, on your sofa, you’ve just finished work and you want to wind down. What do you do? My first thought would be glass of wine. My second would be, ‘how about some music.’ So, if you’re like me you turn on your wireless speaker, connect your phone and depending on the kind of day you’ve had the music coming out could be anything from opera to country western, heavy metal to the songs of Disney (just me?). You listen and you relax. This is sound.

Now I’d like you to imagine another scenario. This time you are standing up on a commuter train (standing, of course because there are never any seats by the time the train gets to your stop). A person standing opposite you is listening to the music they like. It’s probably something to relax them during their equally miserable commute. It’s probably music that you would normally enjoy in any other circumstance. But, today, right now, the tinny, ptz ptz ptz and muffled lyrics are driving you to distraction. You feel you heart race, your fists clench and you start thinking homicidal thoughts (again, just me?). You don’t want to listen, you can’t relax. This is noise.

So, what’s the difference between the two scenarios? Technically, there is no difference between sound and noise – they are both caused by vibrating air particles that generate pressure waves and are detected by the ear before being translated by the brain into something that you hear. But from a hearing point of view the difference is highly subjective. Sound is something we hear. Noise is something we don’t want to hear.

The difference between a sound we want to hear and one we don’t is listener intent. More than likely, a sound that we have had some agency in creating or agreeing to listen to is preferable to one that is being created by or forced upon us by someone else.

For example, my husband loves classic music and likes to play it in the car. In contrast all I hear is the scritchy, scratchy violins and once I detect them, that is all I can focus on. If I’m in the car, the stereo is getting turned off. The sound is the same but translated very differently by our brains.

There are several factors that may change a sound to a noise:

  • the volume – it doesn’t have to be loud, sometimes a quiet sound can be more annoying.
  • the characteristics – for example, the frequency
  • the duration – a dog barking once or twice is probably ok, but what if it barks for several hours?
  • the time of the noise – again the dog barking during the day might be ok, but at 3am?

And these are all subjective. One person’s noise is another person’s relaxing soundscape.

But how does this help people who have sensitive hearing, who find there is more noise in their life than sound? For me, thinking about the difference between sound and noise has helped a bit (definite work in progress based on my reaction to my neighbour mowing his lawn today!). I don’t live in a world of silence; I create sounds that might escape into other people’s worlds and give them a bit of a tic. I’m sure not everyone appreciates my lively renditions of Let it Go or Total Eclipse of the Heart.

Some tips to reduce noise in your life

  • If the noise is coming from in your home, try explaining how it impacts you to the person making it – my husband now only plays his guitar when I’m out of the house.
  • Can you change your commute? Not a simple solution for everyone but sometimes changing your train or bus to the one before or after your usual one can make a massive difference to the amount of people and therefore noise. Or could you walk part of your commute – stress busting in itself and saves you money!
    • I would say use the quiet carriage but from experience those are a greater source of noise and stress than the buffet car!
  • Noise cancelling headphones are an option. My mum swears by her’s but I feel claustrophobic in them. I recomend you try out a friend’s pair before shelling out for some – they are not cheap.

At the moment I’m exploring how I can learn to live with some noise and also how to find the quiet that some days my head craves so much it hurts. As I try things out I’ll share the results with you (good and bad). The above tips are just a couple of things that I’ve found to help – and they won’t always help or they aren’t always possible but they are something to try and see if they work for you. Feel free to share your experiences of noise and how you have coped or what you have changed to improve your sound experience of the world.

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