Hearing Things

The increasing ability to shut out the world’s racket might help us treat noise more like sound

When I was maybe four or five, I got a Winnie the Pooh featurette on VHS. In this particular story, Piglet’s misadventure is attempting to deliver a truly colossal red balloon to Eeyore for his birthday. The balloon ends up getting away from him, and there’s this sequence where it’s going just gangbusters bouncing down a hill with poor Piglet involuntarily riding it. When they come to rest at the bottom, Piglet breathes a sigh of relief and sags into the balloon, which sags as though it’s relieved too, before, of course, it pops.

I loved this tape. But from the first time I watched it right up until I outgrew it, the moment the balloon gets away I would run down the hallway into the bathroom, crouch down in the bathtub, and stick my fingers in my ears while counting to some arbitrary number, 60 maybe. It might have made more sense to use the mute button and stay in the room, but I simply had no faith in the technology.

When my siblings were born, one when I was five and another at 10, I liked them but wasn’t entirely sure what to do about them — they made so much noise. Mostly I would shush them, to which my mother would respond that I should not shush them, a sentiment echoed by the siblings themselves the moment they were old enough. There was just a thing about their little-kid pitch that summoned a molten, wildly disproportionate admixture of panic and disgust. Unclear of how to proceed, I would usually just retreat to my room, and suspect I didn’t actually talk to either of them for a period of several years. Somewhere around age 11, I started telling people I got migraines. This was not true, but I didn’t know how else to explain what was happening. I kept this going until I left for college.

We equate quiet with distance. It was probably inevitable that we’d move beyond the idea of shutting out the world to curating it

What my middle-school self didn’t know at the time was that there was an entire nascent industry growing up alongside me, preparing to meet the demand of future consumers like myself who had, for whatever reason, had it with all this noise. Within a decade, humans would be on the cusp of being able to turn the world up or down the way they controlled the TV, far beyond the reach of any mute button.

In 1978 — the same year the Quiet Communities Act designated U.S. federal funding to help local police abate the legally vague concept of “noise”— Dr. Amar Bose took a transatlantic Swiss Air flight and found that the engine roar rather diminished his ability to hear the music on the other end of the electronic headphones the airline had given him. Bose, the man, began mathematical calculations for “anti-sound” while the flight was still in the air, and by 1986 Bose, the company, was testing prototypes of noise-canceling headsets on pilots eager to ward off the common specter of hearing loss or chronic tinnitus (ringing in ears), plus lessen fatigue and improve communication within a cockpit, once described by an early headset tester as like “being in a phone booth lying on its side and being dragged down a cobblestoned street behind a Mack truck with no muffler.”

Bose had a good run in its own right just designing prophylactic noise-canceling sets for pilots. In 2000 it introduced QuietComfort, the first consumer version of the technology for passengers. The original QuietComforts have since been discontinued, but that’s probably of little consequence to Bose, which pulled in $3.5 billion in the last fiscal year. As of June 2016 the company is up to the QuietComfort35, a bluetooth-enabled headset that currently retails for around $350.

The “cancel” part of active noise-canceling technology is literal. A tiny microphone samples the sound around the user’s ear and generates a “correction signal” that is the outside noise’s inverse — anti-noise, the first application of which is attributed to a patent published in 1936 by the German physicist Paul Lueg. “The present invention … relates to a process of silencing sound oscillations especially of a disturbing nature,” Lueg wrote, “which can be employed independently of the source of oscillation.” The higher a sound’s frequency, the shorter its wavelength, which is why active noise canceling is most effective at lower frequencies; the longer sine waves are easier for noise-suppression algorithms to keep up with. Lower frequencies comprise most of the stuff we’re interested in blocking out anyway. Passing cars; catcalling; the phone call of the person across from us on the train.

Things designed for the purpose of alerting you to something — car horns, alarm clocks — are generally in the mid- and high-range frequencies. High frequencies grab you. They physically demand attention. Yet the highest-frequency noises call for the lowest technology to block. This is called passive noise canceling, and it just refers to a physical barrier between you and the sound — like sticking your fingers in your ears.

Noise-canceling tech liberates us thusly from what we refer to as ambient noise, leaving us, presumably, with only what really matters. From an engineering perspective, noise is literally sound that is not wanted, and that’s probably how a lot of people would make the distinction if they were asked. Sound is deliberate, purposeful, functional, the things you actually want to hear; it means something. The rest is noise.

When we say something has a “good sound,” what we’re referring to is not one discrete thing. It implies clarity, a transcendence from background noise, but also a functional relationship between certain frequencies of consonance and dissonance, something mathematicians have been studying since Pythagoras. Frequencies that aren’t mathematically related tend to not sound nice together. In his 1951 paper A Duplex Theory of Pitch Perception,” the computer scientist J. C. R. Licklider proposed that auditory pitch was not a single attribute, but a duplex attribute, reflective of a two-part process by which our brains process sound. First, our cochlea perform a frequency analysis; then the neural components of our auditory systems perform what scientists call an autocorrelational analysis, meaning an analysis not of the acoustics themselves but of the nerve impulses they’re translated to.

Because these nerve impulses are excited non-linearly, the addition of this second attribute — as opposed to relying just on linear cochlear analysis — offers a mathematical and musicological explanation for the agreeable consonance between harmonic intervals like octaves or thirds. To some extent, pleasant sounds are assumed to be universal, as are the more abrasive ones. But if we find happy ears to be all alike, it’s especially true that the unhappy ones are unhappy in their own ways.

It’s an acceptable perk that I look unapproachably cool inside my commuting uniform of enormous headphones and sunglasses, but it’s really all just part of my quest to achieve a state of total sensory deprivation. My ongoing attempts to soundproof my life currently include a pair of over-ear, passive-canceling headphones, which were expensive but feel nice, and some ear plugs called Happy Ears I ordered online from Sweden, plus those drugstore foam things that put you in mind of swimming pools. I’ve kept my phone on silent ever since I realized I was allowed to, and now I have a nice, well-behaved phone that doesn’t dictate terms to me. You’d think this would make me miss a lot of calls, and you would be right. But if I had to carry around something in my pocket capable of making a noise – even the noise from vibrating — at any moment without warning, I would possibly peel my skin off, and for the most part I can just call people back. The last movie I saw in theaters was in 2012.

The most inevitable forced swim test for anyone who hates noise will take place in an office. A desk neighbor at a new job, by all indications a lovely person, had occasion to be both a loud chewer and in the habit of picking up his mouse and lightly dropping it, or sort of lifting and tapping it, ceaselessly, for hours at a time. For about a week, I seriously contemplated quitting; I couldn’t bear asking someone to excise from their personality what was clearly an unconscious tic, but I was also slightly scared I’d eventually snap and lay hands on the guy. Once or twice a day I beat back retreats to the bathroom where I’d curl into a stall and hide, shaking and half-crying with whatever frayed emotion lies at the confluence of fear, desperation, and rage.

It’s harder to remain fixed on what we don’t understand. White noise smothers comprehensible sound like language with nonsense

Misophonia — a spectrum of intolerance to certain sounds — was first named in 2000, the same year Bose released its breakthrough QuietComfort headphones and my parents decided that a third kid would be a reasonable idea. Popularized by our collective fondness of jokey self-diagnoses and the fact that no one likes open-mouth chewers, it’s nevertheless not actually recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It differs from hyperacusis in that the latter — which is a medically recognized condition — refers solely to a heightened, often painful physical sensitivity to any noise above a given threshold of volume or frequency. Misophonia is about an emotional response, about sounds that induce anxiety or anger. Independent of frequency or volume, it’s triggered by a set of noises specific to the individual, usually everyday ambient noises and usually apparent from childhood. Whether or not I have it would depend on the severity by which you define it, which, since there’s still no formal DSM listing is pretty much limited only by your imagination.

In addition to chewing and the mewling of small children, I have a deep-seated inability to handle any situation where noise is imminent yet resists my efforts to anticipate its precise moment of arrival. Champagne bottles opening; bells ringing between class periods. Horror movies are out of the question, and balloons are a kind of looming existential threat, though my feeling this way about them predated the Piglet incident. I would hesitate to assign any chronic label to my symptoms. There are people who can’t leave their homes, who are incapacitated, physically or emotionally, by car alarms or elevator dings or chewing gum. I would say more that sound intolerance is something I have a tendency toward. I can keep a job; I can go to a crowded bar. I can mostly set it aside in situations where I really need to.

Diagnostic criteria for misophonia was proposed in 2013, but the thing is so protean in nature — at the intersection of, at least, neurology, psychology, and acoustical engineering — that it’s hard to get a clinical lock on it. This is also why retailers like Bose have historically been careful never to market to or design for people with any particular sensitivity to sound, even widely accepted conditions like tinnitus. They’re understandably hesitant to promote a product from a medical platform without certainty that it offers benefits, which is hard to do when the thing that stands to be benefitted still does not technically exist. Until misophonia is granted the status of official psychiatric disorder, the party line will remain that ambient noise is a hassle in all our lives, and noise cancelation is a tool for everyone.

Separate from active and passive cancellation is sound masking, which is exactly what it sounds like. This can be done with more deliberation if the situation calls for it, but for colloquial purposes it uses white noise, the random composition of all audible frequencies at equal intensities of energy. White noise is that untraceable, generic hiss you hear underneath EDM hooks. It’s the static of unclaimed AM radio frequencies.

Of the various colors of sound humans have identified and begun to characterize, only white noise has really entered the vernacular. White noise apps are graceless things that I am forever deleting from my phone, but I invariably re-download them in times of need. It’s not my first choice to tackle a noise by compounding it with another noise. For certain situations, though — my roommate screaming into her phone at 4 a.m., which she does with great regularity and enthusiasm — an imperfect tool is better than none. It’s harder for our brains to remain fixed on what they don’t understand. White noise takes comprehensible sound like human language and renders it less comprehensible by smothering it with nonsense.

There is a range between 0 and 1 called the Articulation Index on which we measure the intelligibility of human speech against background noise. It was originally drawn up as a diagnostic tool for patients being treated for hearing loss, but it’s since been adapted from medical purposes to more ergonomic ones, much like noise-canceling tech itself. Noise regulations vary all the way down to the municipal level, but there’s an ever-expanding list of restrictions to ensure industrial ambient noise doesn’t render the planet unlivable. Building codes implemented to mitigate noise pollution can compromise the yield businesses get from their equipment; IT companies with a lot of appliances in close quarters need to run their fans higher to dissipate more heat if they want everything at its maximum output, which generates more noise. White noise and sound masking help when I’m lying awake listening to the hum of electrical wiring (a low buzz, usually around 120 hz) and feeling like my heart might very slowly explode, but they aren’t a solution at this scale. Faced with a cap of, say, 60 decibels — roughly on par with a human speaking voice — companies are probably looking to integrate some form of independent active canceling technology. The demand is giving rise to new companies like Israeli start-up Silentium, which sells a variety of adaptable noise-cancelling products, even chip-and-microphone sensors that can create a “quiet bubble” around a car passenger’s head.

Both Bose and Silentium are private companies, so they don’t share their net worth, but by all indications they and the other contenders in this field are growing rapidly. The desire to turn the world down is a powerful one. We can close our eyes; we can choose not to touch things. But we can’t adjust what comes through our ears, not without help. Perhaps responding instinctively to our lack of natural pull with this sense, people find noise cancellation even more attractive when you throw in a personalized mechanism of control. Bose has already begun limited testing on a new product called Hearphones, a culmination of various audio technologies marketed not just as noise-canceling, but as conversation-enhancing. The idea is that you can isolate and amplify the sounds of your choice simply by looking at them (technically, by turning your head so the microphones are aimed in their direction).

In both Soundwalk and Soundscape, immersion in ambient noise can afford us greater sense of place. In this context, it was wanted; it was sound

Technology like this can be interpreted as less about preserving modes of privacy and more about increasing human connection; not to protect your eardrums at a concert, but to be able to talk to the friend you brought with you. Culturally, we’ve already acknowledged headphones as shorthand for “Do Not Disturb,” and their presence often affords us the refuge of at least being able to act as though we don’t hear the noise of, say, catcallers, even though much of the time we still do. For hearing persons, the sense of sound is a crucial one to human companionship; we equate quiet with distance. It was probably inevitable that the technology would proceed in this direction as soon as we had the means to facilitate it. We’re moving beyond the idea of shutting out the world. We’re entering the era of curating it.

Confronted with a future of customizable sound, it’s understandable to fear that we’ll be losing something. That garbage trucks and unnecessary fire alarms and loud chewers will soon be things for which we, or at least some future generation, will be nostalgic, much as we romanticize both world wars and also consumption. Your respective intrigue or hand-wringing at this juncture probably depends on the degree to which you ascribe psychological value to ambient noise, or to forced participation in the public sphere.

When the Met Breuer opened last year, it celebrated by releasing Soundwalk 9:09, a composition of crowd-sourced audio recordings arranged by the composer John Luther Adams. It consists of ambient sounds accrued during the nine minutes and nine seconds it apparently takes to walk to the Breuer from the Met on Fifth. The year before, the Museum of the City of New York opened an audio-visual installation called Soundscape New York that sampled audio from New York City landmarks like Grand Central Terminal and the Rockefeller building: “Grand Central Terminal’s soundscape … features an oceanic-style animation with clangs, echoes, and quick crescendos of intensity, transporting the listener to the midst of the station’s daily bustle.”

The late composer John Cage’s 1937 speech The Future of Music: Credo contains language markedly similar to Adams’s conception of his found composition — if we might still call it that, since technically the Met commissioned it — nearly 80 years later: “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments.”

People tend to categorize sounds by point of origin, and we know that some categories are better liked than others. Researchers who study psychoacoustics — the human perception of sound — can observe a conscious preference for natural sound over human-generated sound, and then for human sound over mechanical sound. Dr. Bose built a commercial empire off the decision that sitting next to a jet engine is no reason we should have to listen to one, and Lueg’s noise-cancelling patent got him in trouble with the Nazis, but the idea behind both Soundwalk and Soundscape was that immersion in ambient noise can afford us greater connectivity and sense of place. In this context, it had meaning. It was wanted; it was sound.

I usually head out to work with a single song playing on loop inside my headphones, sometimes with earplugs inside the headphones too. The morning after Trump was elected, I forgot my phone, and my whole bag with my headphones and earplugs and everything, at home, partly because I was still a little drunk. I imagine a lot of people forgot things that morning. The subway was so quiet I thought maybe it was like that, miraculously, all the time, but I knew that wasn’t really true because on more regular mornings I’d watch their lips move. Nobody spoke; a few people cried. I felt naked in that specific naked way you feel when you’ve left your phone somewhere else.

The idea that technology is now somehow interfering with our continuous perception of the world around us is not exactly true; we were never perceiving everything at once. Your auditory cortex is biologically designed to isolate sound from noise, though of course not with the technical precision we would like. Perhaps sound is the next frontier whose inconveniences the privileged first world will simply be able to pay to remove, like wisdom teeth. The tech of the near future seems real enough to do that, and to — for those preternaturally inclined away from it — moderately unfuck our relationship to the world, so that we might liberate ourselves from hiding in bedrooms and bathrooms and get busy doing so in plain sight. Maybe some of us will grow more tolerant of noise — of people, even — because we can opt out when we need to. Maybe it’ll help us hear better.

Kastalia Medrano is a New York-based freelancer who still does not enjoy balloons. Her retweets are unwavering personal convictions.