Why Walkmans and iPods frighten me

We all know that people are afraid of the dark, but aren’t we afraid of silence too?

Silence is almost impossible to find. It is a truism that we can hear things “all the time” – Right now, I can hear my forearms move on the table, the fan spinning in my PC, the keyboard tapping as I type, a fly buzzing around the sink, a blackbird(?) singing outside my window (I don’t know my birdsongs as well as I know my birds), a cock some distance off, and someone hammering in fenceposts.

However, all of these apart from the blackbird are human sounds in one way or another. If my neighbour did not keep hens, there wouldn’t be cocks to crow. If I was more interested in washing up and less interested in blogging then flies would not be as fascinated by my kitchen.

343 meters per second

It is hard to find places where you cannot hear the sounds of people. Noise carries, particularly on a still day. The whine of a bike accelerating, changing gear and accelerating again carries a couple of miles. You can hear the grey sound of a car’s tyres on a metalled road three miles off. Aeroplanes growl in the skies twenty miles or so away. Those are the big ones. But in more rural areas you can’t move for the sounds of sheep, tractors, trains and picnickers.

The three most silent places I can remember are the Australian desert, Swedish pine woods and – in a raucous third place – some sparsely populated moors, or maybe they were dales.

The way your ears behave becomes qualitatively different when you are alone in a remote place away from moving water. Sounds become more three dimensional. One can hear progressively quieter things, and one’s aural horizon expands, enabling one to extend mentally into progressively larger spaces. I have been told that if you are in a desert for long enough you can hear a snake rustling across the sand a quarter of a mile away.

As an aside, I would be curious to experience a migraine in a place that silent. One of the symptoms of migraine is what is called sonophobia, but what actually happens is that you lose your ability to filter out some sounds and focus on others. As a result every noise appears amplified and crystal clear. It is the audio equivalent of the autistic person’s compulsion to catalogue everything they see. It would be interesting to experience that inability to filter sounds in a still and silent place. The next time I have both a migraine and a driver I’ll ask them to take me up onto the moors.

In still and silent places, and I have experienced only three, you engage with sounds in an almost tangible way. A sound can become a whole-body experience. You let sounds come to you, and then you start to seek them out. You try to understand and interpret what is going on.

You listen.

And in the silence, you can think.

So maybe that is what frightens us.

If we are somewhere that silent there is a tendency to babble. We find silence to be oppressive. We whisper in empty churches. Oddly, we don’t whisper in cathedrals so much, but these are often noisy places with their plethora of tourists. (We of course aren’t tourists, we are visiting). Out of doors there is not the social pressure to be quiet, so we walk, crunching sticks under our feet, our clothes rustling around our bodies, and we call out quiet here, isn’t it to each other at a quite unnecessary volume and ensure that it is nothing of the sort.

We are making ourselves progressively more insensitive to noise. We deafen ourselves – physically and measurably deafen ourselves – from an early age. We turn up the television far louder than it needs to be for us to hear it. We sit in pubs where the music is so noisy we have to shout into our neighbour’s ear in order to be heard. And then we clamp iPods to our ears to rub out the noise around us. And every single one of these noises desensitises us to noise both physically and mentally.

How many pieces of music do you hear a day? It appears that we hear, on average, an hour and a quarter of non-chosen music each day, and two and three quarters of an hour of chosen music.

We tell ourselves we use noise to blot out noise. Surely we use noise to blot out silence.

As I said at the beginning. Walkmans and iPods frighten me, and I think this is because they are the anaesthetic a whole generation is using to rub out the noise around them. But these devices replace noise with noise, leaving, in the middle of it all, no place to think, and no place to sit and to do nothing but be.


7 responses to “Why Walkmans and iPods frighten me

  1. *Hides her iPod behind her back and looks nonchalant*

    I remember kneeling on the lid of the loo at our old house in Italy, looking out across the valley before dawn (yes, loo right infront of window. Window with best view in entire house. Architect somewhat deranged, no doubt). The entire valley was utterly, utterly still. even the motorway that ran along the valley floor was silent. Everything, the olive-trees, the hills, the sky, was an elegant grey. I had never heard a silence like it. When the mountains opposite became rimmed with blazing apricot light, a blackbird trilled. It was wonderful.

    You don’t get sunrises like that in London. Heck, you don’t get sunrises.

  2. Thank you for putting into words what I hadn’t realised I felt, too. I was of the Walkman generation and never had one, now I’m surrounded by iPod users and I still don’t want one. Someone gave me a little object to download music onto a year ago, and it still hasn’t come out of its packaging. Being blank to the sounds of the world doesn’t appeal to me; I don’t want my own soundtrack. As a mother of three I also use my hearing to parent. Noise is good, silence usually very dangerous!

  3. You are both very kind, especially as I came home from Lodon this weekend concluding that I am some kind of a neurotic for being so over-sensitive to noise.

    But I do want to go up onto those moors (or dales) again very soon.


  4. Interestingly enough, I use one of those i-things very, very daily – and dearly – in course of my everyday life. And wouldn’t be without it.

    But when I’m out and about on the free ranges, in the Great Outdoors if you will, I absolutely wouldn’t be listening to anything else than what Nature puts around me. And the silence can be a very pleasant sound to be in.

    Swedish pine woods are indeed among the finer places on Earth for silences. Though I don’t half mind it, when I’m up there, to flop down at the edge of the lake and have it mingled with calm sounds of the water against the banks, a little bit of insect buzzing and birds singing in the lazy sunshine…

  5. >> calm sounds of the water against the banks, a little bit of insect buzzing

    … and the sounds of Aphra slapping dementedly away at the mozzies!

    Thank you SG V


  6. There’s an interesting counterpoint to my point of view here: http://timthefoolman.wordpress.com/2005/12/22/earbud-exile/

    I value my privacy, but have arranged my life in ways that ensure it isn’t too badly threatened.

    What Tim says is interesting and has made me think more on the subject.

    I really am neurotic about noise, amn’t I?

    Oh well.


  7. silence can be hard to come by. I don’t so much listen to my iPod anymore, but one of the goals when I did was to replace the loudness of my commute with loudness that I enjoyed and controlled. Silence was not an option (and yes I tried earplugs, but since they just muffle, you can still hear the unwanted crap).

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