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In Depth

Give peace (and quiet) a chance

man wearing headphones (Copyright: Thinkstock)

(Copyright: Thinkstock)

The scientists, companies and "soundscapers" on a quest to make our society quieter and less stressful.

Like many musicians, Andrew Flintham had trouble making that difficult second album.

Two decades ago, the record producer completed The Brecklands Dawn Chorus, a one and a half hour recording of early morning bird song. It went on to become the biggest-selling wildlife recording of the 1990s. But 15 years later, whilst trying to make a follow-up, he hit an impasse. The problem was not a lack of creativity, but a paucity of available content. From the mountains of Scotland to deepest Wales, he was unable to find an uninterrupted dawn chorus anywhere in the UK.

"The most I could gather was about five minutes," he says. "When I played back all the recordings there was always a hum of noise that drowned out the birds. It was either the drone of traffic, civilian aircraft, military jets, electricity sub-stations or even mobile phone masts and that was in 2008. I’ve tried in several places since then and it’s become worse.”

Flintham's tale, which many will find tragic, reminds us just how rapidly societies are changing. He believes that we live in a constant rush-hour, having replaced Monday to Friday, nine to five working patterns and leisurely weekends with 24/seven shift working and its accompanying constant din. For Flintham, it has made life worse. And, he is by no means alone. Campaigners and health organisations point to a growing body of evidence that noise can profoundly affect our health and emotions. The World Health organisation, for example, says that persistent sounds of just 30 decibels, equivalent to someone whispering in a library, are enough to disturb sleep patterns. As a result, politicians are starting to take note, and as the public starts to react against the ever-growing cacophony, businesses are responding with products designed to bring back the peace and quiet of years gone by.

Actress Poppy Elliott is one of those (quietly) leading the charge. The granddaughter of John Connell, the founder of the UK's Noise Abatement Society, launched Quiet Mark earlier this year. The charity’s premise is that the reason products are noisy is because it is cheaper to make them that way. It campaigns for quieter products, whether they are airlines, trains, hair-dryers, food-mixers or even musical instruments. The initiative then awards a striking purple Q stamp of approval to products or schemes designed to be sensitive to the ears of those around them.

"Even the inclinations of the sound of our voices can make or break our day," says Elliott over coffee in a busy café near her home in Brighton, in the south of England. As we speak, a blender roars into action in support of her cause. "Life revolves around the sensitivity of sound. It’s a fundamental pillar of our existence, as important as light.”

Shhhhhh

Quiet Marks are awarded to encourage companies to produce less noisy products whether they are aeroplanes, trains, hair dryers, food mixers or even musical instruments. Early winners include the Corinthia Hotel in London for providing a quiet haven away from the “urban buzz”, Stihl for its range of quiet lawn movers and hedge trimmers, as well as Yamaha for its range of silent instruments, including a violin that allow headphone-wearing musicians to practice without disturbing others. The construction firm Temple Mace and the London borough of Southwark also recently received one for reducing disruption and noise disturbance during the building of the Shard, the capital’s new landmark tower - particularly important because of the proximity to a prominent hospital.

The Shard’s Quiet Mark award is unique, but it echoes similar moves around the world. In New York, for example, the city’s department of environmental protection rewards contractors who use tools and machinery that are designed to reduce noise. The city even issues guidance to help construction firms buy quiet versions of necessary kit.

Back in the UK, Quiet Mark’s initiatives have been welcomed by some UK politicians, while it has also received support from a cast of companies that have pledged to build quieter products. That includes the car maker Lexus, which underscored its commitment in 2011 when it launched its “Shhhh” television advertisement for the CT200h compact hybrid, featuring pop singer Kylie Minogue. “Quietness is at the heart of our engineering philosophy," says a Lexus spokesperson, who backs up the claim by revealing how its engineers listen to its cars’ engines “through a stethoscope” to ensure that noise is at an optimum level. “Quietness appears to be an appealing feature to today's car buyer,” they add.

But Jamie Weaden, industrial design leader at the home appliance maker Kenwood, says it is not just premium products, like cars, where consumers are demanding more. "Historically the noise of products wasn't as high on the agenda when it came to design of small domestic appliances,” he says. “But modern consumers, including myself, now rightly demand products with lower and better noise quality without this requirement being reflected adversely in price."

It would be tempting to think reducing noise is just a marketing gimmick used by firms to differentiate themselves in crowded markets. But, according to Elliott, it is more than that. "Sound profoundly affects our emotions and health," she says, adding that she has plans to follow Quiet Mark with Quiet Bark – involving sound-proofed kennels and tips from dog trainers in how to reduce barking humanely. "We’re creating a melody of brands to bring the people new, easy-listening, lifestyle choices. Like John Lennon, all we are saying is give peace (and quiet) a chance."

‘Buy quiet’

Elliott's claims about the harmful impacts of environmental noise are backed by a growing body of evidence. One study, published in the European Heart Journal in 2005, found that long-term exposure to high noise levels was linked to a tripling of the risk of heart attack for women and a 50% increase for men. German scientists who carried out the research said they believed loud sounds were largely to blame for the effects; however associated stress and annoyance could also play a role thanks to elevated levels of hormones and brain messaging chemicals such as adrenaline and noradrenaline.

A report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) concluded environmental noise was responsible for thousands of cases of heart attacks and cases of tinnitus in European Union member states per year. It also backed the findings of other previous studies showing high noise levels can undermine reading, memory, language and attention in children with life-long knock on effects on educational attainment.

Such findings have meant that everyone from governments to employers are now taking the effects of noise more seriously. For example, the US space agency Nasa, where you might think the roar of a rocket taking off was an occupational hazard, has an entire programme dedicated to what it calls “hearing conservation”. In addition it has introduced a "buy quiet" procurement policy, aimed at reducing workplace noise where possible.

Forward thinking as these schemes are, they are of no help to the hundreds of thousands of people who live – and try to sleep – amidst the noise of our modern cities. Over the years, engineering has led to better sound proofing and glazing of newer buildings in these areas, but they do not tackle the problem at source. As a result, nearly ten years ago, the European Union launched its environmental noise directive that requires member states to produce maps of noise levels in large urban areas. The ultimate goal is to help politicians and officials reduce their populations' excessive exposure to loud noises, which, despite numerous efforts over the past 40 years to reduce them, have continued to rise.

"This is by far the most significant international attempt to reduce environmental noise impact that there has ever been,” says Dr Mike Goldsmith, previously of Keele University in the UK, who led Dreamsys, a three-year project for the British government to build low-cost measurement systems into noise maps based on reality, not prediction. They were produced using figures from arrays of low-cost microphones placed around urban areas rather than the traffic flow and flight timetable data previously used in the UK.

“Historically there have been two trends which are relevant here," adds Dr Goldsmith, whose book Discord: The Story of Noise, is published late September. "One is the use of zoning to restrict areas affected by noise and to define quiet areas on different scales. The other is the slow but steady development of the perception by individuals that they have a right not to be exposed to significant noise."

Dawning thought

Not all those in the field are working to turn down the volume. Sounds ability to change behavior can also be used in a positive way.

Canadian transport managers were the first to combat vandalism and other anti-social behaviour by playing classical music at remote stations in order to deter teenage gangs. The tactic has been used by transport and supermarket managers in the UK.

Dr Harry Witchel, an expert on physiology and acoustics, and lecturer at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the UK, has experimented with playing relaxing music in a lively clubbing district in Brighton in an attempt to dampen the raucous atmosphere on Saturday nights. Although his efforts have so far proved inconclusive, he believes "soundscape" design can be used to change behaviour.

“Soundscapes are about making the sound appropriate for the space, and the people and animals that share the space," he says. "Some spaces should ideally be peaceful, while other spaces should be vibrant.

Dr Witchel is working with Soundscapes of European Cities and Landscapes, an EU-funded project that promotes the view that managing noise should not be just about reducing sound levels. His book You Are What You Hear, published last year, seeks to answer tricky questions such as why some prefer Beethoven and others rap, why aggressive young men in cars play their music so loud and why music can enhance sexual pleasure.

Another proponent of soundscaping is Martyn Ware, founder member and keyboard player of the pop group Heaven 17. When he is not touring, he runs the Illustrious Company, a 3D sound installation company. He turned London's Millennium Bridge into a 3D sound system during the Olympics in a project called Tales From The Bridge.

Ware has also been working with the Noise Abatement Society on pilot schemes involving creating immersive, calming soundscapes in troublesome urban areas. However he does not believe all the problems caused by noise can be solved by soundscaping.

"I'm not sure that overall it's possible to do so. However, with intelligent and considerate design as well as sensitively curated urban sound curation, the negative effects can be ameliorated. I think we need to acknowledge the multiplicity and complexity of the soundscapes we encounter daily, and look at ways of changing them for the better."

If the efforts of campaigners, politicians, businesses and artists to re-introduce some peace and quiet to our lives are successful, Andrew Flintham will perhaps one day be able to complete his mission to record another uninterrupted dawn chorus.

“There is probably a dawn chorus somewhere in the UK, but I don’t know where it is, and even then it probably doesn’t last very long," he says. "Nature’s natural relaxant is birdsong and it’s something I’d really like to hear again without any interference.”

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