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Noise might just be in your head

June 3, 2018

Have you ever thought why we think of nature as quiet even when there are squawking birds or crashing waves? An environmental historian says that what we think of as noise is as much a matter of ideology as decibels.

According to Peter A Coates, people living in the city have always complained about noise, starting long before industrialisation. “Possessing the power to drive genteel folks to distraction were hammering tinsmiths, carpet-beating maids, whip-cracking, foul-mouthed animal drovers, and, not least, the purveyors of so-called ‘rough music,’” he writes.

In other times and places, it was nature that people perceived as noisy while the sounds of civilised society were considered a gentle comfort. Coates quotes historian Mark Smith while noting that European settlers in America found the noise of an ax striking a tree an “aural victory over howling wilderness”.

According to Coates, nineteenth-century modernists felt that “mechanical sounds and the noisy bustle of commerce bespoke prosperity” while quiet “was synonymous with indolence, backwardness, and stagnation.” In contrast, romantics like Nathaniel Hawthorne heard the “long shriek” of a distant train whistle as an affront to both the natural sounds of birds and leaves and the preindustrial human sounds of the village clock or the cowbell.

Perhaps it’s all just in your head.

This article originally appeared on Jstor Daily


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