There’s Noise, and then there’s NOISE

Recording of Haydn C Major and Constant Budgies

Recording of Scarlatti C Major Sonata with Budgies

Attached is part of a Haydn sonata I was apparently reading through (please accept my apologies, although I warned you in the beginning this was NOT about my playing), with my budgies carrying on constantly. It reminds me of their “cocktail hour,” which is something they used to do with regularity in the early evening: just break out into constant commentary. Also attached is part of a Scarlatti sonata which was part of the same session; they’ve calmed down quite a bit, but I included it because it’s pretty music that I’d forgotten about and was delighted to find.

One talks, the other listens

Budgies carrying on while I play piano may sound noisy. In some respects, they are. But compared to the vast array of human-created noises (including my piano), they barely contribute to the pollution of the aural airspace.

Listening to birds made me more aware of my hearing and what I was and was not listening to. As I strove to hear more birds, I wanted to hear less and less of the human noise that drowns them out. That I live in a suburban area and work in an urban environment doesn’t help.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to go on a naturalist tour of the Burren in Ireland, and I can remember waking up mornings thinking the bird song was incredible. Nobody considers Ireland a top destination for birds and so this may be hard to imagine, but by comparison to where I live, with traffic noise constant, whether loud or a low murmur, planes flying overhead, not to mention booming car stereos, lawn mowers or snow plows–depending on the season–leaf blowers, what-have-you, a rural town in Ireland is a very quiet place, so you get to hear the birds sing in the morning. And realize what you’ve been missing the rest of your life.

I work downtown and the noise is deafening. At any moment a car horn can blast in your ear or an emergency vehicle siren ricocheting off the concrete canyons can make your ears hurt, if your ears are still able to feel and not permanently dulled from hearing loss. Here I had discovered birds late in life and I want to hear them, but if I continue to subject myself to the urban noise, I wouldn’t be able to hear at all. I had to do something, not always having hands free to plug up my ears with my fingers (which is by far most effective). So I started wearing earplugs, fashion be damned, from the moment I get on the train in the morning, because the train too is noisy, and when you get off in the station it’s a whole other experience of idling engines spitting, arriving trains clanging their bells and screeching their brakes, not to mention the distorted, ear-splitting announcements over the PA system that are still too loud even if I press my fingers against my ears. Earplugs cushion your ears against harm but you can still hear, and if it’s too loud, the earplugs are only making the decibels a little less detrimental. Conversely it’s quite possible to go to a rock concert or a hockey game with your earplugs and be able to hear everything just fine, including your un-earplugged friends yelling to you over the noise.

There have been plenty of studies about how all this noise pollution is dehumanizing us, affecting our health, contributing to our demise. But nobody seems to think about it. I cannot recall seeing one other person with earplugs. Occasionally I will see someone’s hands go up to their ears, but for the most part, people walk through the city stopping only their conversation as ear-blasting noise like a fire truck or ambulance approaches and drives by.

The best antidote to all this damage, of course, is getting back to nature. The birds remind me of this all the time. My birds at home will never be so tame that they’ll allow me to watch TV with the sound on. Not that I am much of a TV watcher anyway, but the budgies shout over it in their “noise” voice, the same one they use to communicate or to try to drown out the vacuum cleaner, which is probably the worst noisy appliance I subject them to (the blender and food processors are short-lived noises, so it must be the droning-on that gets them). Yes, believe it or not, their “noise” voice is harsher than their “rap” that goes along with the piano.

Something about the tinny sound of the TV just drives the budgies crazy and they immediately have to drown it out. So I have learned to live with closed captioning, although I don’t know how anyone who cannot hear makes sense of it since half the interpretations are phonetic and the words often come out completely unrelated to the subject at hand. Only if there’s something I really want to watch do I go to another part of the house where the birds don’t hang out. But I don’t feel deprived. I don’t miss TV, and I’m glad, because now there are studies saying the more we watch TV, the more years we take off our lives.

The birds taught me how to listen to them and a lot of other things I used to blot out along with noise. I don’t want to be incapable of hearing them, or anything else I want to listen to. Hearing loss is not a necessary result of aging. It’s due to noise pollution.