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Syndic Literary Journal


The Quality of Noise


By John Hartmire

These are noisy times.  Seemingly proving my point, I received an email recently offering me the chance to purchase a sound measuring app for my phone called the Decibel X, which apparently is one of the few noise meter apps that can turn my phone into a professional sound level meter, accurately measuring the sound pressure all around me.  “Have you wondered how quiet is your room or how loud is a rock concert or sport event? “it asked.  “Decibel X will help you answer all of those questions.”

Questions have never been in short supply, unlike answers, but I have never really wondered how quiet my room is, or how loud a ballgame can get.  I tend to experience the din of a frenzied crowd without caring what the actual decibel level is, and when I get the chance to be still and quiet the last thing I need (or want) is some device telling me it is nice and quiet.  I seem to appreciate it all on my just fine. 

There is sound—noise—everywhere.  Consider the incessant hum of the gardener’s gas-powered leaf blow­er, a neighbor’s rickety lawn mower, an edgy driver blowing his horn at as fellow motorist, a helicopter circling overhead looking for something, kids playing street football down the, well, street, a distant siren, music coming from two houses away, and of course fenced dogs barking hysterically at the things dogs fenced in a backyard will bark at.   Our world booms with sound diurnally, and I am sure there are men and women who get paid handsomely to measure it with government-grade instruments, calculating its effect on our eardrums and quality of life.  

No doubt because life is the way it is, faster and noisier and more crowded than ever, someone felt the need to invent the Decibel X app.  But for the very reasons that gave someone the idea in the first place it can never be a particularly trustworthy index of sound: Sound is not easily measured.  Some of the loudest sounds wouldn’t give the Decibel X the faintest tremor: a hushed voice in a house where some­one has died; or a child’s hand turning the knob of a door where a man is trying to work, timorously testing the door to see if the man won’t come out and play.  Sound’s timbre is what should concern us—the quality of sound is much more important than the volume.   A country sawmill is rich in decibels, yet the ear adjusts easily to it, and it soon becomes as undisturbing as a waterfall crashing down into a deep pool of icy dark water. 

The sounds of recent weeks have not complemented life’s comfortable cadence much, challenging and angry as they’ve been, beyond the scope of any app to measure with any precision.  The forces that give rise to these sounds, these shouts and murmurs, these pleas and rage, the choking and crying that clog our streets, fill our heads, strangle our minds, and break our hearts, are beyond any mechanical meter.  It’s the noise behind these sounds that demand our attention.

George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe” would not have measured much on the Decibel X, yet his voice was heard through cities and across oceans and continents.  The chant “black lives matter,” whether painted on a boulevard or chanted by hundreds, could never be measured for its value and truth by a sterile silicon chip.  The eight gunshots that killed Breonna Taylor as she lay in her bed were louder than any sound meter could measure, just as the removal of the Confederate flag from NASCAR races and the razing of statues that never should have been erected in the first place defy decibel readings.  How do you measure 400 years of wrong in decibels, I wonder?

Tear gas cannisters bursting open have a volume that the Decibel X can reasonably measure.  The pretexts that fire them into crowds of people marching through a city decrying laws and behaviors and murders committed under the badge of authority do not, and the silence of police officers and politicians and citizens alike taking a knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds should break any decibel reading device with its reverberating roar, but it won’t.  And here’s a question the Decibel X could not possibly answer: How loud and was the quality of noise when Black Lives Matter Plaza was created in Washington D.C.?  Measuring the decibels of the power drill used to install the street sign does not seem to cover it no matter how earnestly someone endeavoring to measure it tries.

The Decibel X email has a footnote saying you should not expect it to register a 0-dBA reading when sitting in a quiet room, because apparently there is no such thing as no sound.  Nor will it be able to calibrate how the silence of a gentle snowfall in a mountain meadow feels very different from the silence of an empty city street due to curfews and the national guard armed to the teeth, as if we were at war with one another.  It has one more monstrous flaw.  I am willing to bet that this app cannot sufficiently assess the asinine and vindictive sounds coming from the White House these days.  It would be better off focusing on the farting of an old horse.  But wouldn’t we all. 




Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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