We Do Love Our Noise

This is a screenshot of the middle of Texas, with Dallas-Fort Worth at the top, San Antonio at lower left, and Houston at lower right. My city barely shows up at this level of zoom. (Click image to see full-size screenshot.)

So there’s a noise map now, if you need a temporary-but-fun diversion from other concerns.

NPR (here), Wired (here), and others recently covered the U.S. Department Of Transportation’s National Transportation Noise Map, which is interactive and instructive.

As the name implies, it covers only transportation-related noise, including auto traffic, railways, and airports. Zooming into my city, I noticed immediately that this is all it covers. For at least half my city (Killeen), the primary driver of noise is Ft. Hood — not only the dozens of low-flying helicopters that exercise daily, but the live-fire artillery training. Ft. Hood looks completely silent (indeed, invisible) on this map, even the heavily-traveled main roads driven by tens of thousands of soldiers daily are blank. Nor does the map show the local police department’s firing range, which is within earshot of my house.

Further, the map isn’t completely accurate, either, as I again noticed from looking at my own city. The map shows a single large bar over the airport, covering its primary runway direction, which doesn’t account for the variety of flight paths, many of which head east-west — completely ignored on this map.

But these criticisms are minor. Overall, the map shows what anyone who’s traveled extensively already knows — that some parts of the U.S. are really, really loud, while others are amazingly quiet, and that these differences are (almost always) directly related to population density and transportation infrastructure. (Another obvious exception I can think of are the oil pumping units that are common in rural areas; if you live close to one, you’ll hear that thumping 24 hours a day.)

If you live in a relatively rural or suburban area, I encourage you to first zoom into your own locale and then switch to a densely populated urban area like Chicago or New York City. Or vice versa if you’re from a densely populated urban area.

It’s really quiet in the middle of nowhere. In this photo, I’m standing in the middle of US Highway 380, a few miles west of Throckmorton, Texas. For minutes at a time, the only sound was grass waving in the breeze.
(Copyright © 2006 by Marline Fry.)

When I first visited my then-fiancée in New York City in 2006 and stayed a week, one of my comments to her after a couple of days was how loud the city was. Though I lived next to a highway back in Seminole, it was a rural, state highway in a city of 8,000 people, and at night it was silent for many minutes at a time. The lone railroad track through our town had been unused for decades. And at any time, I could drive out of town a few minutes, shut off my car, and hear nothing. I had mentally prepared myself for how crowded and fast-paced it might be in NYC, but what I had failed to expect was the massive amount of noise, and how difficult it was to escape it. Even in the middle of the night, the city vibrated audibly. In the day, it was nearly unbearable. I could hear it in the middle of the vast Central Park, on the northern edges of the Bronx, and far out in Queens (surrounded by international airports and criss-crossed by truck-laden highways). The voices of 20 million people overlaid the rumbling of trucks and taxis, the squeaking of millions of brakes, the opening and closing of more doors than any other city in the U.S., the buses, the trains, window-unit air conditioners, and sirens everywhere. One thing I didn’t hear much of in Manhattan was the sound of any kind of animal other than pigeons.

Today, my home is even quieter than the one in Seminole, Oklahoma, had been. As I began this entry this morning, aside from the sounds of my children playing, the only other sounds I could identify were the humming of my computer’s fan and the clicking of my keyboard as I typed. There were half-hour gaps between cars driving up or down my cul-de-sac street, and no military helicopters interrupted our peace this morning.

Stepping outside, I could hear a few birds chattering in the distance, a delivery truck on Featherline Road (a few hundred yards away), a couple of distant A/C units humming, and a very distant dog complaining about being stuck in a small yard.

A motorcyclist in Wewoka, Oklahoma. Some say there’s a legitimate reason for motorcycles to be so loud. I think that reason is assholery.
(Copyright © 2008 by Wil C. Fry.)

This afternoon is different. It always is on Saturday afternoons when the weather is this nice (mid-70s). The neighbors have recovered from whatever they did so late last night and some are now outside. A few are mowing their yards and washing their cars. One or two attempt to organize their garages. Some have sent their children outside to play. Most have their dogs trading yaps through privacy fences. Almost all will drive out and return at least once, about half of them with sound systems turned up a bit too loud. The unnecessary noises (barking dogs and car stereos) bug me a little, but not at all when I remind myself of the audio assault I experienced in Manhattan in March 2006.

We humans — most of us anyway — seem to really enjoy noise. (I don’t. I’d rather hear silence for hours than endless cacophony.) Some people can’t stand silence. Sit with them in a room for a couple of minutes, and eventually they’ll burst out with inane conversation just to hear something. About one in ten vehicles in my city has a modified exhaust, purposefully making the car louder. About the same ratio of cars here have non-stock speakers added to the cars so the music can be “shared with” (forced upon) everyone else. I’ve met a startling number of people who say they can’t fall asleep at night if the house is quiet; they run a fan in the bedroom to counteract that.

Other noises aren’t necessarily desired, but are accepted as a trade-off for convenience — including jet planes, trains and trucks, power tools, vacuum cleaners, lawnmowers, blenders, air conditioning units, etc. The benefits we get from them are considered too great for the (sometimes painful) noise to be an deal-breaker.

It’s well-accepted that continuous or repeated exposure to very loud noises can cause permanent hearing loss, but most of the noises under discussion here aren’t going to be that bad (unless you live directly under LaGuardia’s flight paths or attend rock concerts nightly). Mostly, it’s just an irritation for us.

For wildlife, it could be a different story.

Some animals adapt to the noises of human society — like the aforementioned pigeons in New York City, and (presumably) the pets that New Yorkers keep. Studies have shown that human-made noises can distract wild animals and affect the way they respond to other sensory input, affecting their ability to gather food or watch out for predators. Another study showed that plant life is affected too — because so many plants depend on animals to spread their seeds or assist in pollination. Noise turned out to be good for some plants, because hummingbirds are actually attracted to noise (to avoid their noise-hating predators) and therefore pollinate more flowers near noisy sites. Other plants won’t survive near loud noises, because their animals helpers avoid it. And human-caused noises can adversely affect any animals that hunt or navigate using sound waves — echo location or sonar (source).

It’s relatively well-known that the noises of our ships hurts whales, causing chronic stress and impairing their ability to forage.

Why do we, in general, make so much noise?

I think it’s safe to say the loudest sound I’ve ever heard is when fighter jets do low flybys at airshows, like these Thunderbirds are about to do at Tinker Air Force Base.
(Copyright © 2008 by Wil C. Fry.)

I wonder if — at some point in our evolution — it became a survival strategy to ward off predators. So many lurking critters in the wild will be startled away by a loud sound. Not only that, it can be scary to sit silently in the dark in the wilderness, listening to dozens of sounds you can’t identify; sanity might have been helped by talking over those sounds.

But primarily, our sounds come from our technology. First the chipping of flint into tools and weapons and then the rumbling of wooden wagon wheels and clanking of metal-working shops. An ax striking the trunk of a tree. Then the sounds of our primitive musical instruments — drums and horns and lyres. By the time the Industrial Revolution rolled around, the sounds of machines were still fearsome, but many of us were already conditioned for it. Steam ships and cannons held sway for a bit and then we got railroads, passenger jets, and bombs. Millions of bombs. Our homes got louder too, with dishwashers, laundry machines, microwave ovens, exhaust fans, televisions, and radios.

We still get loud sounds in nature — the call of the blue whale at 190 decibels or the eruption of Krakatoa that was heard thousands of miles away, though the loudest natural sound that most of us will ever hear is thunder. If you’re close enough to the actual lightning strike, thunder will register at 120 dB. (Compare this to 150 dB for a jet plane taking off 70 feet away. And keep in mind that every 10 dB doubles the loudness.) Most of us will never hear a volcanic eruption, blue whale calls from closeup, or a meteor strike. And we’re rarely close to a lightning strike.

But most of us are close to the loud sounds that we make, especially if you live in a large city, and our cities are getting larger.


On a personal “public service announcement” note, please wear hearing protection for any sound as loud as a vacuum cleaner or louder. There is a noticeable difference afterward, if you do.

  1. Being a lifelong sufferer of Tinnitus, I wouldn’t know silence if it jumped up and bit me, wagged its finger in front of my face and stood there sticking its tongue out at me.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      I’ve heard that can be rough, Michael. I am indeed fortunate that I can “hear silence” when it presents itself.

      (Related: Several family members — aunts and uncles — are completely deaf and have been their entire lives. They have never, ever heard any sound whatsoever. Not music, or birds chirping, or dogs barking. I cannot imagine such a life. [They CAN feel noises of certain frequencies, including bass notes from stereo woofers, the concussion from a firearm or explosion, thunder, etc. They are known to get each other’s attention at a distance by stamping on the floor.)

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