Sound Deserves its Own Pollution Category

For weeks subscribers to the quiet-list went round and round the issue of whether noise was air pollution. This message was written to break the circle.

From: Ron Pellegrino
Subject: Sound Deserves its Own Pollution Category
Date: 4/13/98

Piggybacking on clean air legislation would work against the sensible sound movement. In the minds of today's society air pollution has a massive inertia in the form of a history of being considered a type of chemical/particulate pollution carried by air that enters the body and poisons it via the respiratory system. Whereas sound pollution is a vibratory phenomenon (compression/rarefaction waves) conducted by air and other gasses as well as by liquids, solids, and mixed matter vehicles. When humans hear through their ears, conductive matter, in the forms of gasses, solids, and liquids, is essential to the process. The human hearing system also includes conduction and mediation via bones, flesh, and body cavities. Its conduction modes are part of what make sound pollution a special problem different in nature from air pollution. (I´m avoiding the word noise because it´s a preferentially loaded expression.)

The nature of sound is that it is all-enveloping and it easily and naturally surrounds and enters one´s private physical, mental, and psychic space. Its vibratory and time-based morphological natures are what give sound its special powers, a fact musicians, healers, and philosophers have known from time immemorial. Two well established physical and metaphysical principles operate here - resonance and entrainment. Resonance involves the reinforcement of the vibrations of a receiving system due to a similarity to the frequencies of the source. Entrainment occurs when one vibrating system influences one or more separate vibrating systems to vibrate (have the same period) as the source system. These are universal principles that operate across the vibratory spectrum from particle physics to astronomy.

Resonance and entrainment are two extremely powerful natural sonic forces that should be uppermost in mind when considering sound pollution. The negative effects that sound might have on brain waves, the nervous system, respiratory cycles, heart rate, muscle functioning, and glandular functioning must be factored into the nature of sound pollution. Those negative effects are due not only to sound pressure levels; frequency, spectral variables, and dynamic shapes weigh in just as heavily as sound pressure levels.

Most complaints posted on the quiet-list are triggered by industrial or technological sounds. These sounds are generated by machines powered by inhuman sources which means that the sounds can and do exceed normal human limits. They´re too loud, too insistent, too fast or too slow, too high or too low, not spectrally or dynamically shaped to be compatible with the human hearing system...the list could go on and on. Plus, machine sounds, by virtue of the principles of resonance and entrainment, force human systems to vibrate in inhuman ways and that´s painful to the point of torture if you´re paying attention. If you´re not paying attention, it´ll still affect you; you´ll probably feel awful but you won´t know why. Pain thresholds vary from person to person and from moment to moment in individuals; however everyone is affected and shaped by sound. The most grievous sources of sound pollution are those that interfere with the fundamentals of human nature and force machine modalities onto people making some, with good reason, feel crazy.

There´s far more to the problem of sound pollution than simply decibel levels. Educational systems rarely scratch the surface when it comes to sound. I´m sensing that that´s about to change. To delve deeper into these matters check out 1) HANDBOOK FOR ACOUSTIC ECOLOGY edited by Barry Truax, , a lexicon that´s a great place to begin a study of sound, 2) FEELING AND FORM by Susanne K. Langer, a philosophy book that makes the case for the power of sound to influence human feeling, and 3) THE MOZART EFFECT by Don Campbell, a highly readable book that emphasizes the good effects of sound but touches on the bad ones too.

Ron Pellegrino

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