vol. 4, #33,
WITHIN THE SOUND OF SILENCE
And as long as she's got noise she's fine.
You know, one of the things our technologies have done, so insidiously that we hardly even notice it, is wipe out silence. Noise has become both pervasive and portable.
My mother was probably one of the first people to use television as continuous background noise. Every morning she'd get up early, turn on the TV, get her coke and her cigarette and her newspaper, and sit down to read. She didn't actually watch TV, though, unless something on it attracted her attention. For her, the voices in the background were simply company, who could be ignored most of the time until they said something worth listening to.
In those early days of television, that wasn't how most people treated it. When only a few people had a set, watching a program became an event; other people in the neighborhood would drop in and watch it with you. You didn't chat during the program, because people wanted to pay attention to Alice cutting Ralph Kramden down to size, and Ralph, all impotent anger, promising to send her to the moon.
Now, though, a lot of people treat TV like my mother did. They walk in the door and turn it on, then wander around the house, change clothes, sort the mail, feed the cats, fix dinner, without ever really paying attention to it. Kids coming home to an empty house routinely do this. The sound of human voices in the background seems to bring some sense of security, some sense that we aren't REALLY alone.
This may have been one of the earliest uses of sound as background rather than as something to pay attention to, but Muzak arrived soon after. This was familiar music, orchestrated out of any individual character, stripped down to pure mood. I remember once hearing this teasing, sappy, familiar little tune playing in the background when I was eating out. My mind nagged away until I finally recognized it as "I Can't Get No Satisfaction"--a song that in its original down-and-dirty form would never have made it into that particular restaurant. The bland homogenizing is intentional; if you recognize the tune, really HEAR it, the Muzak isn't doing its job.
The point of Muzak is not music but psychological controI; it's carefully timed to human rhythms, playing peppy, upbeat stuff when lunch has made us lethargic, playing calming music at other times. The music at dentists' offices is deliberately soothing. The music played while we've been placed on hold replaces the dead silence that makes us think we've been forgotten, diverts us, perhaps, from noticing how long we've been waiting.
If the bar you're in plays loud and raucous music , it may be because psychologists found that people drink more when they're subjected to obnoxious noise. That insistent Christmas music in the malls is intended to remind us continuously of our obligation to buy. And the noise level at rock concerts acts like a drug. It assaults your ears, enters your body and pounds inside it, bypassing your cerebral cortex, turning off your thinking, turning on pure physiological response. (Some rock performers have realized this is a good way to sell their political ideas.)
One way we fight other people's noise is to carry our own noise with us. We can use our noise as a weapon, a way of asserting power, claiming space--who of us is willing to ask a group of teenage boys to turn down their assaultively loud boombox, let alone ask them to move over so we can sit down?
Or we can create our own private sound environment with a Walkman. We can tune out anything we don't like--Muzak, television, our teachers--and focus on our own sounds.
We create our personal sound environment in our cars, too, with our radios or CD players. The rise of talk radio seems to be a direct result of people's need for company on their long commutes. We have deliberately chosen to travel alone in our cars, rather than car pooling or taking public transportation where we cannot control either our schedules or our company, but this does not necessarily mean we enjoy being alone.
In silence, alone, it is difficult to avoid our thoughts, our feelings, our doubts. If they are not comfortable thoughts, if we'd rather not deal with them, we can drown them out with noise. (Isn't much of the pain of insomnia the silence that makes it impossible for us to ignore the little slimy green things in our heads?)
Noise can open us to other people's ideas. There's a peculiar intimacy in a voice on the radio. That voice inside your private little enclosed box on wheels seems to be speaking just to you. It's a good radio voice, charming, persuasive, rhythmic, and a driver is already in a road-induced trance-like state. The ideas that voice is selling can start sounding right. At least that's how I account for the rise of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk.
But noise can also be a take-off point for our own ideas. I often wear a Walkman when I go out walking. I'll be playing rock music, and bits and pieces of the lyrics will take root in my mind and start mushing around with the stuff already inside it. Some of my best columns have started that way.
Whenever I go into someone else's sound environment--a mall, a restaurant, a home like I grew up in where the television set is always on--it's the first thing I notice. Because my life is not full of ambient sound. The only noise in my house, other than the sound of cats getting into trouble, is the music or TV I turn on when I actually want to listen to it. My workplace is not entirely silent, given how noise carries through its three-story atrium, but there is no continuous background music. When I am not working with people, or chatting with friends, I live, essentially, in silence.
I'm comfortable with that, up to a point. Silence is conducive to reading, to thinking, to writing. The sound of silence can be the sound of a mind at work.
But it's also the sound of separation, of isolation, of death. Silence is in some ways deeply inhuman. Deliberate silence from the people around you can be especially threatening--not for nothing do religions call their direst punishment ex-communication.
If our species absolutely requires noise, it may be because we need the comfort of our own kind. We need friendship, gossip, news. We need to bounce our minds off other people's ideas. The best noise of all--perhaps the noise we absolutely must have to survive--may be simple human conversation. As long as we've got THIS noise, we're fine.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
I'll write columns here whenever I really want to share an idea with you and can find time to write them . If you want to be notified when a new one is up, send me an e-mail and include "My Word's Worth" in the subject line.