Silence! Or What to Do on International Noise Awareness Day

Thoughts about music in a raucous world and International Noise Awareness Day.

The concert halls in Vienna are phenomenal spaces. You might think I’m talking about the music. But what flabbergasts me is how quiet they are. There is no air-conditioning rumble, no sudden siren from the street. I love listening to their silence, to the wondrous moment of noiseless anticipation before the music begins, so quiet that you can hear the conductor’s intake of breath before the first note from the balconies.

Outside, the world is a raucous place; there are few places where ears can rest. Moreover, regular or long exposure to noise, even at the level of city traffic (85 decibels or so), can cause irreversible hearing problems.

International Noise Awareness Day was founded in 1996 as a global campaign to raise consciousness about the effect of noise on the welfare and well-being of people.

Initiated by the Center for Hearing and Communication in New York, it is now observed with events around the world. Also in Austria: On April 25, the Institut für Schallforschung (ISF, Acoustics Research Institute) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences is presenting an open house with 26 interactive stations in its various labs.

Austria is a forerunner in noise awareness. Laws were already enacted here in 1993, setting limits for railway noise – the first country in Europe. Since then, the EU has also implemented legal limits on a wide range of environmental and workplace noise. And while a great deal of progress has been made, “noise-induced deafness,” according to Bernhard Laback, specialist for psychoacoustics at the ISF, “is still the most common occupational disease in Austria.”

Noise Annoys

Laback will also be presenting at the ISF’s open house: His research deals with the directional perception of acoustic sources, and how music sounds for a person with cochlear implants. “Particularly difficult to reconstruct is the perception of pitch,” he says. “It is still a long way for people with implants to be able to ‘hear normally.’”

Earplugs for noise reduction are easily available. Prices begin at €0.55 for a pair of Ohropax, the classic (since 1908) earplug made of wax. And for just under €200, you can have custom plugs made by hearing aid companies like Hansaton or Neuroth. They offer a wide range of protection, from simple decibel reduction (up to 25dB) to sophisticated plugs that enable you to hold a conversation at a rock festival while filtering the massively amplified music to safe levels.

One problem is that we listen to what attracts our attention. The so-called cocktail party effect, otherwise known as auditory zoom, describes the phenomenon of hearing only the person we are talking to, even in a loud environment. But while our minds cancel out noise, our ears do not. And unnoticed noise pollution causes damage.

The Federal Ministry of Sustainability and Tourism takes noise reduction seriously, even offering an online real-time map of noise on the streets of Austria. The Wiener Linien, Vienna’s public transport company, is proud that its new low-rider street cars are 4 to 6 decibels quieter than the older ones. Neighbors also take their Ruhe (peace and quiet) seriously. There is a real law: no lawn mowing on Saturdays from noon or all day Sundays and holidays. And as a music student in Vienna, I quickly learned an unwritten rule: absolutely no practicing after 22:00, and on Sundays between noon and 15:00.

But to return to the concert hall: for me, a sacred place for listening. “Silence is very important,” Mozart once wrote. “The silence between the notes is just as important as the notes themselves.” He was right. Silence, that rare wellspring of calm, is something to pay attention to when it is there.

International Noise Awareness Day: April 25. Open House at the Institut für Schallforschung of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), 9:30–17:30, 4., Wohllebengasse 12–14.

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