The (Blessed) Sound of Silence

“Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…”

If you’re of a certain age, you most certainly recognize the opening lines of Simon & Garfunkel’s immortal song “The Sound of Silence.” Although the album on which the song originally appeared was a commercial flop in 1964, since then “The Sound of Silence” has garnered near universal acclaim. Part of what makes the song so appealing is the mystery surrounding the meaning of the lyrics. And while the lyrics are indeed hauntingly ambiguous, it’s the title that really got me thinking: what are the implications of living in a world where silence is becoming increasingly rare?

I admit to having a great sensitivity to — and surprisingly little tolerance for — ambient noise (by “ambient,” I mean distracting, often unavoidable, sound occurring in my surrounding environment). The irony of this admission is not lost on me, considering I’ve enjoyed both listening to and performing loud (sometimes very loud) music for many years. Adding to the irony is the fact that it is music — not the shriek of passing ambulances nor the ear-splitting thunder of jackhammers — that I find most offensive.

Today, music — often at cochlea-shredding volume levels — is inescapable in malls, coffee shops, grocery stores, banks, restaurants, even book sellers (I’m looking at you, Barnes & Noble). But not just any music — music that makes me want to flee through the nearest exit. Several months ago, I attempted to enjoy a sushi dinner with my family as the saccharine bleating of Kenny G assaulted my senses from a speaker directly over our heads. It made conversation a chore and sorely tested my patience. And unless you inexplicably crave the mind-numbing THUMP THUMP THUMP of club music, forget shopping for clothes if you’re over 22. I actually thanked the manager of a small but tidy burger joint recently for NOT playing music; it was an extremely rare dining experience where I could actually think and eat at the same time.

But I digress.

In an NPR interview a few years back, George Prochnik, author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, eloquently considered the consequences of living in a noisy world:

“I work not too far away from an Abercrombie & Fitch store,” says Prochnik, “and I would hear the music booming out, and I would wonder what it was that was appealing to all the people, enough that they would want to be in an environment, spending a lot of time, which was often at truly eardrum-shattering levels of volume. So what I really found as I began spending time in some of these loud stories and speaking with the people who designed the sound for them, is that there was a very, very careful, strategic effort to zero in on key emotions and on key triggers of excitement. And noise…is a very powerful, very brutal source of real energy, and in some of the loudest stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, this is very obviously being exploited to create a sense of party, to create a sense of thrill, just in being in this space.”

Ahhh…so our brains associate noise with having a good time?

“What we know” said Prochnik, “is that if you’re loud at this point in our culture, it seems to signify that you’re having a good time, and it’s a fun place to be, and this is the same phenomenon that we find in restaurants, which continue to get louder in many cities every year, and many people find this unbearable. But many people feel that a restaurant is dead unless it has that noise level.”

Video: George Prochnik on Silence

Beyond noise’s assault on our sanity, it can take a toll on our health. According to a 2015 article in the Journal of PeriAnesthesia Nursing titled “A Quiet Environment is a Healing Environment,” noise may be associated with “decreased immune function, impaired wound healing, and reduced pain tolerance.” One hospital I read about, the University of Rochester Medical Center, provides patients with a personal Comfort Kit including earbuds, earplugs, and eye masks, and lists several suggestions on its website for maintaining a quiet environment. I suspect many others do, as well.

But what about the rest of us? While we may not be able to seek refuge in a Trappist monastery (as Prochnik does), we can always visit parks, libraries, art museums, hiking trails, and other natural settings when we need a break. We should also set aside a few minutes each day to spend in a space devoid of noise (or at least with as little noise as possible). It’s good for our health — both mental and physical — and serves as a crucial reminder that the world will continue to spin even when we disengage from it for a while. In the meantime, let’s heed those wise words sung by the Go-Go’s on their 1981 hit “Our Lips Are Sealed”: “There’s a weapon/That we must use/In our defense/Silence.”