A Diary of Sound
friend of mine goes to gigs probably five nights a week, and now has tinnitus. Loving music hurts. Last night, after pondering tinnitus for a short while, I lay awake in bed, hyper-conscious of the ringing sound in my own ears. My latest pair of headphones are some Shure ear canal monitors that totally block-out external sound. They’re great on the train. I don’t notice traffic noise with them in. I can have the volume much lower… but still. All that sound, all that energy, being channelled straight at my eardrum. I think I probably do have tinnitus, mildly. I think I also stand a greater chance of being hit by a car when crossing the road.
Saying “last night” makes you think I wrote this piece this morning, aye? It adds intimacy. I actually wrote that paragraph days ago, and the bit about talking to Nick (coming right up) about two weeks before that. Weird, huh?
I’ve just bought some Etymotic earplugs for going to gigs—they lower sound by 20 decibels without affecting clarity. Precautions, precautions. Red wine apparently prevents hearing loss later in life. Red wine does a lot of things. I think of my deaf, teetotal mother, and I am glad I have a rack full of Rioja very near the hi-fi. It’s an unconscious irony. I like a drink with a record. Maybe, just maybe, I knew, eh? I remember seeing Mega City Four in a little underground venue in Exeter some 12 years ago (my brother knew them, he’s thanked on the sleeve of Who Cares Wins, we did the NME crossword with the bassist before the gig) and my ears rang for days afterwards. Precautions. How do you know what tinnitus sounds like if you can only hear it when you’ve got it? Do everyone’s ears ring a little?
On Friday I had a conversation with Nick about sound. (This is not some kind of split-personality “concept” column—we just have the same Christian name.) Nick is doing a PhD in the use of ambient sound and music in film. We talked about overcompression, radio, Brian Eno, music in shops and pubs…
Earlier in the morning I’d given my colleague Oliver a CD-R of Beta Band tunes, and it was playing in the office. Playing. Not “being listened to.” I’m getting quite militant about not having background music at work lately, as you could probably have guessed. But still, when I have to show new people around it’s always something I mention. “We play music.” It’s a selling point. People love the idea of it. “Oh, you play music, that’s so… wonderful!” It’s social control. I find it very sinister now. We’ve ruined music by putting it everywhere so we forget how to listen to it because we’ve evolved to ignore it instead. In the space of a generation. I blame the baby boomers.
For six million years all mankind has had to listen to is the trees, the sea, the rain, animals and his own respiration, and now we’re surrounded. Attacked.
Nick and I were talking about how the brain tunes-out certain sounds, air-conditioning for instance, and how undynamic music can be tuned out too, because consistent, level frequencies and volumes are more easily ignored. During the conversation “Dry The Rain” came on. “Dry The Rain” has a change in it… I’m not sophisticated enough to know if there’s a key or tempo change, but it definitely changes volume, gets louder. Has a dynamic shift. About halfway through.
“Hold that thought” I said to Nick, who cocked his head at the same time as I did. “This song just shifted. I’d tuned it out but now it has my attention and I don’t know what you just said because I was listening to the song instead.”
QED. “Quod erat demonstrandum.” “That which was to be demonstrated.”
(Those may not be the exact words that were spoken between Nick and I, of course. But you get the gist.)
BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme has been complementing this year’s Reith Lectures, during one of which pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim issued a challenge.
Too often, he argued, our ears are exposed to what's commonly known as Muzak, when on the phone, when out shopping, eating, or drinking.
So how often do you find your ears invaded by music over which you have no control? And how often do you listen to music of your choice?
The programme invited listeners to make a Music Diary of every piece of music they heard in a 24-hour period, whether through choice or not. Music in shops, on television, on the bus, on their iPods, birdsong outside their window—any and all music they heard was to be included, considered and commented upon.
This is an idea that fascinates me. Ambient music, not just in the Orb / KLF / Eno sense, but in the sense that Coldplay might be used as incidental music on the BBC or M.I.A. might be played in Top Shop or Embrace as an underscore to football highlights, is a recent phenomena. Noise is a recent phenomenon. Air-conditioning units, traffic, machinery, the click of a hard-drive processing information. For six million years the only sounds mankind heard was wind, rain, birdsong and his own respiration (almost) and now we are surrounded by noise.
A Sound Diary
This might be a typical weekday. (I’m making it up, of course, but it’s pretty close to the truth.)
I go to bed with the radio on; tuned to BBC Radio Five Live and turned down as low as possible (the radio is a tuner on a Denon minisystem in my bedroom, and “as low as possible” is a literal figure of 1, on a scale of 1 to 30). This means that even in my sleep, there is sound. Of course there would be sound anyway—I have the window open so the rustle of trees and rumble of hedgehogs or whatever would be present—but this is a deliberate, chosen, artificial sound that I enforce upon myself. Psychologically that’s got to be pretty weird.
In the morning
My alarm, the shower, second-hand radio from another room downstairs, the crunch of cornflakes and slurp of milk, a conversation. And then my iPod, traffic noise, the train, the natter and chatter of fellow commuters. Even though the iPod is mine and I loaded all the music onto it and screwed my headphones into my ears, I don’t always choose what plays. Shuffle does that some mornings. Of course I could choose, or I could skip the iPod’s choice, but… what is the social/cultural ontology of the “shuffle” function, what does it mean, where does it come from? If you hit “shuffle” you are choosing to listen to music but not which specific music to listen to? Is it about removing a level of decision making, arresting a value judgement?
During the day
The incessant rumble of the air-con at work is tuned-out with almost 100% efficiency by my brain. Until, that is, I type the phrase “air-con” and then the perpetual low thrum is present again. Tapping keyboards, music next door (Cabaret Voltaire, Miles Davis, Front 242, Ministry, Plaid, Buddy Rich) although the office is open-plan, people talking, planes overhead when I’m outside, ducks in the pond where I eat lunch, cars on the road nearby, more air-con, computer fans, music in shops, fridge noise in shops selling chilled goods, the sound of electricity just humming, mobile phones ringing, buzzing, honking or whatever, snippets of overheard conversations. I seldom hear birds sing simply because my ears are generally plugged with headphones. Sometimes I like to switch the iPod off though. Sometimes it’s gift to hear the world instead.
In the evening
The iMac start-up tone, radio both first and second-hand, the television during dinner, the clank of plates and pans being washed, conversations with my girlfriend, the soundtrack of a film, the SFX of Pro Evolution Soccer, any music of my choice. And then, when I go to bed, I put the radio on again.
Ignoring the stuff I made-up, right now I can hear the iMac quietly humming as I type, a bird outside, several birds, three kinds at least, very distant traffic, a TV downstairs, a radio in the bathroom, some kids shouting at each other and playing several hundred yards and a couple of streets away, and a kind of very low, background hum. But even if everything falls silent… my own breathing, my heartbeat. Hold a seashell to your ear. It’s not the ocean you hear, but the echo of blood rushing through the veins in your ear, your brain, your hand, your body.
Never any silence.