Cities are noise generators. For those of us who live in Seattle, there’s a more-or-less constant clamor, composed of ambient traffic commotion; fire, police and ambulance sirens; train horns; ferry horns; air planes; news helicopters and crowds of human beings, cheering in stadiums or shouting in demonstrations or just simply making herd noises as they move around en masse, like giant slime molds. (That’s not necessarily an insult, by the way; slime molds have much to teach us when it comes to cooperative community living.)
Noise is an inevitable part of civilized life, and the benefits accruing from the examples here provided far outweigh the inconvenience of having to listen to them. But cacophony comes in different varieties, from major disturbance/personally uncontrollable down to mildly irritating/entirely unnecessary and every conceivable nuance in between. In this column, we’ll be looking at the kind that can be controlled: the root causes of the mindless, extraneous din to which we are constantly subjected through the cloddish stupidity of other people.
Take restaurants, for example. These days, eating establishments are constructed without regard for acoustics, and the resulting cacophony is so loud that sensitive persons prefer to stay home these days. Oddly enough, though, most patrons are oblivious to the noise, and perfectly okay with shouting at one another across the table. They’ve had to do it so often it’s become second nature.
Still, general restaurant noise falls into the category of intermediate uncontrollable, owing to the prohibitive cost of soundproofing a space that was built as an amplifier: Most restaurants couldn’t afford to fix the problem, even if they wanted to. but (and this is what I will never, ever understand) wait staff and managers actively and intentionally increase the ambient din (clanking crockery and cutlery, customers shouting conversations, babies screaming, doors slamming, grills hissing) by turning on music.
It’s usually not pleasant music, either, but that relentless, pulsating, mind-numbing slish, with too much bass and a female “singer” wailing her angst into the recording equipment. This has to be turned on full blast, of course, so you can hear it above everything else that’s going on.
In God’s name, why? Why do this? Once upon a time, restaurants were silent places, with management-monitored noise levels. Into these pleasant, tomb-like spaces, soft music was studiously added, in order to heighten the ambience and aid digestion. Restaurant music does neither of those things now. Even if it were good, which it isn’t, nobody can hear it properly. It serves absolutely no purpose, other than to up the unpleasantness quotient.
Again, astonishingly, many people are fine with this. Elderly diners are often hard of hearing, and young ones, who have spent their lives subjecting their eardrums to things for which the eardrums were never designed, are partially deaf. But some of us in the middle would appreciate the chance to actually converse with our dinner companions.
“Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut’s savage little story about political correctness taken to extremes, takes place in a future where intelligent people are hooked up to transmitters, which send out random loud noises every few minutes, in order to keep smart people from taking unfair advantage of their superior brains. But Vonnegut’s society didn’t need ball-peen hammers and car crashes and sirens to stop people from thinking — all they required was a recording from a Capitol Hill restaurant on a Saturday night.
So, this is your chance to take part in an exciting new social movement: The next time you dine out, ask your server to turn down the music. Just think what might happen if everybody did this.