Let’s face it. New York City is just too darn loud (see: The Pinheads performing Huey Lewis in Back to the Future). It’s a fact of life. Through casual observation, I’ve noticed that most folks out there are pretty desensitized to it. Makes sense. It’s nature’s way of protecting us from constant distraction. If we weren’t constantly filtering, we’d never have survived this long. Unfortunately this filtering can have a negative effect as well: Because we aren’t immediately aware of the onslaught of sound around us, we are less likely to avoid it. If the average noise level of a nearby ambulance or fire truck siren doesn’t make you wince and cover your ears, something is wrong. Are people worried they might shatter their street cred? Or, and more likely, they probably have what I call “ear callouses.”
Now, I consider myself something of an odd duck because unlike most folks I see roaming the streets, I still cover my ears when said ambulance goes by. I’m fighting against desensitization every day because as a sound engineer and sonic user experience consultant, I make my living with my ears. On a basic level, my job involves analyzing the effects of acoustics and sound on people in public spaces. I am here to tell you that ear callouses are bad for you. They serve to dull the immediate pain of loud and intrusive sounds, sure, but the psychological effect of them remains: increased stress and irritability.
We all know that prolonged exposure to high sound pressure levels can cause physical hearing loss, but what about the more nuanced psychological effects? Let’s assume the aforementioned ear callous is merely a psychological phenomenon, loosely defined as a condition where conscious acknowledgement of sound is inhibited due to overexposure at high volumes (the guy with the jackhammer in the middle of Fifth Avenue drilling away with no earprotection would be an extreme example). Having ear callouses actually causes the subconscious reactions to sound – stress, fear, anxiety, etc. – to be more extreme because you do less to protect yourself.
When it comes to sound desensitization, I see three main sonic factors at play that can either be its cause or solution: the source of the sound itself, the acoustics of the space in which they are transmitted, and the balance or blend of them in that space (especially those of you with ear callouses, try your best to listen up!).
The Sounds Themselves
At the most basic level, when sound travels to our ears, it provides information about our environment. For most animals, the ability to sense or hear sound is a survival mechanism that could indicate the presence of a predator, for example.
When the sound provided doesn’t provide any information about its surroundings, we call that sonic trash. There’s plenty of it that you might be willing to accept on a conscious level, but could be elevating stress and anxiety beyond your comfort level on a daily basis.
Here’s an example of sudden disturbance that can elevate your stress: riding on the Amtrak Acela. You’re sitting in a quiet train car, reading a book and basking in tranquility, when the person across from you decides to get up and – WHAM! – the footrest smacks against the back of the seat. The reaction to that noise is something we have little control over, and those without ear callouses might literally jump in their seats. But everyone who can hear the sound has been disturbed, and that peaceful, smooth ride they worked so hard on is taken down a few notches because they neglected to put simple rubber nubs where the footrest should land against the back of the seat.
To build on the ambulance example above, let me bring up the hideous screeching and grinding from a 4/5/6 train when it enters the Union Square MTA station here in NYC. This is another place where, shockingly, you don’t find people covering their ears!
You might think every station suffers from this problem to some degree (back in 2003, Union Square was measured as the worst), but there is one that I’ve been in that doesn’t: The Brooklyn-bound E train platform of the 53rd and Lexington station. Why? I have no idea. If any of you can find out, please indicate so in the comments. When the train comes into this station it’s like a small boat approaching a slip. All the whoosh, grind and clacks are sucked up by the sound absorption above. The sound of the people on the platform is affected too. The loud CLOP CLOP CLOP of shoe heels becomes a controlled and very delicate poc-cik, poc-cik, poc-cik, with one simple echo of each hit instead of a massive buildup turning into an aural stampede. Here’s an easy solution: What if every major MTA station in New York had sound baffling on the walls and ceilings over the tracks? It would make for a much more relaxing experience, and since 5.7 million people ride the subway every day in New York City, it could also make for a happier, calmer population.
Cover It Up or Blend It In
Sonic trash is a growing problem, and New York City has plenty of it. The result is a massive amount of sound-desensitized New Yorkers who are often irritated and aggressive. The only way to get a New Yorker to relax is to remove them from the city – and it’s not just the fresh country air that they appreciate, whether they know it or not.
At Made Music Studio, one of our major offerings is transforming physical spaces to make them sonically optimized. We might go into a restaurant and set up the sound system in a way that makes the seating area feel tranquil despite the large amount of people in the area. Or, it could be creating an experience for customers when they walk through a physical space to tell a brand story, like we did for AT&T’s Flagship Michigan Avenue store in Chicago.
Instead of deafly wading through the hullabaloo of modern city living, it behooves us to pay close attention to how the sonic world we inhabit affects us. Simply covering our ears may be an appropriate step to improving our overall health and mood, but if we actually pay closer attention to our environment, we might be able to affect change. The more people that notice the causes of this sonic trash on a personal level, the better off we will be as a whole.