There is a phenomenon in music known as ‘rolling’, which occurs when one band member can’t hear himself over the others and cranks up his amp. That enables him to hear himself again, but now the person next to him has the same problem and cranks up his amp too, and so it travels along the line-up until the sound level becomes unbearable or someone’s amp blows out.
Scientifically this known as the ‘Lombard effect‘ after the French ENT specialist who discovered it in 1909. In addition to loudness, it may also involve other acoustic properties such as pitch and tempo. Lombard based his finding on human speech, but it has been shown to affect animals too, particularly birds and sea creatures, who have to compete with human noise to make their calls heard.
Since the mid-20th century, the overall noise level in the oceans has risen by 12 decibels, which is quite a lot, due to the thumping of ships’ engines, sonic buoys, military detection devices and other man-made sound sources. Sound carries much farther in water than in air and the mating and hunting calls of whales can and often must reach for several miles. But the whales have had to adjust for the masking effect of androgenic noise, which they have done by lowering the overal pitch, because the lower the pitch, the longer the soundwave, and the further it will travel.
That only adresses part of the problem, however. Androgenic noise also interferes with their sonar-based navigation systems, so they become disoriented and not rarely end up beaching themselves.
A similar effect has been detected in land animals who use sound for navigation, such as bats.
Up to this point it may seem that that’s their problem and not ours. Not so. Our fight-or-flight response is hard-wired to our auditory system, because by the time you can see your attacker, it is too late. Any sudden loud noise will trigger this primordeal reflex, releasing adrenaline, and raising blood pressure. On that account, noise has been linked to cardiovascular disorders, high blood pressure, insomnia, hypertension and plain old stress.
Of course, the very same effect can be enjoyable, for instance when listening to a good song on the radio in the car with the volume at max, or when dancing by the stage at a pop concert. But like all good things, too much of it is bad.
Our hearing deteriorates with age and the widely accepted cause of that is age itself. But it has been found that people in areas where there is next to no androgenic noise retain most, if not all, of their hearing thoughout their golden years. And the hearing of aging animals, who never worked in a factory, went to pop festivals or drove cars with 3000 watt woofers, appears even less affected. That would indicate that the hearing loss plaguing the elderly is not an inevitable consequence of aging, but of all the noise they have been exposed to throughout our lives.
Noise is an insidious pollutant, because, except in people who have lost the faculty of sight, auditory information is not processed consciously, like visual information. It enters our nervous system through ports that are buried deeply in the subconscious and only a fraction of it ever bubbles to the surface. So we do not think much about the effect of the constant, seasonless drone of road traffic, the screaming of airplanes overhead, the buzz saw howling next door. We are not aware that all these sounds are actualy a series of small explosions and that each of these makes us jump a bit.
Unless, of course, you were in the security detail at the Democratic convention when the balloons went up.
More about noise pollution can be found at nonoise.org, one of the comparatively few organisations currently focusing on this form of pollution. And in spite of all this, it would be wholly understandable if you crank up the volume a notch or two for the next KXCI set.
(Broadcast: 3:55 ADVISORY: Sound level jumps to +12dB at 00:56-00:57)
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