Ringing in the New Year

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sound (image from ducksters.com)

January is a time for list-making and taking stock. The folks at Mental Floss have a creative angle, cataloguing change in the audio realm with “11 Sounds Your Kids Have Probably Never Heard.”

As a cusp child of the Millennial Generation, I can recall all of the clicks and squeals on the list, but most were phased out of my life before I really noticed, either. One loss I have noted is the whirr and crackle of a real film projector at the movie theater. Now when the show starts on the big screen, I’m blown away by boom of the digital surround sound. The blaring fanfare seems unnecessary until I tune in to the orchestra of beeps and jingles that plays under it as moviegoers fiddle with their phones through the previews. Makes me think that modern soundtracks really do need to holler to get our attention.

So while I’m pondering the sounds my kids will never hear, I also wonder whether their ears will ever get a break. How often do today’s young people encounter silence?

Whether or not most people require Dolby Digital, it seems we prefer it. Almost all of my fellow commuters have miniature speakers on or in their ears for the duration of the bus or train ride. It’s understandable they might prefer their own soundtracks to the grunt of a diesel engine or the squeal of metal breaks. But that hypothesis doesn’t hold up in quieter places and times. My local library is always abuzz with clattering keyboards, beeping and chirping devices in the hands of patrons of all ages. This isn’t a regional or urban phenomenon, either. After a recent visit to a fiber-optically challenged county in Maine, I can say for certain that teenagers have portables in their parkas and buds buried in their earmuffs. Specialized pockets and loops have made their ways into standard winter gear, and if the mobile providers have their way, even the most intrepid trekkers will never wander into a dead zone on the map. Noise is cultural now.

I observe, but I’m not exempt. I had the TV on when I read that article, and when I started to type this piece. I like to turn on mindless programs when I work late, just to have the camaraderie of other voices in the room.

“Silence is Golden” is oft-repeated, if not heeded. (I want to say,“like a broken record,” which I guess makes me old. See above.) But maybe as quiet becomes scarce, people won’t need silence. That would be the sort of Darwinian model, and it’s borne out by real trends: Some bird species are getting attuned to city life, have adapted their calls to ambient noise. (Read more from George Mason University and Animal Behaviour ) Or, maybe the old adage is true, and silence acts like gold: It’s more valuable when there’s less to go around.

When I try to measure the benefits of silence, I encounter a paradox. I know the value of quiet only because of the sounds it reveals to me. Last weekend in Maine, I slept without stirring for eight hours straight. I woke to ice tinkling as it melted from tree boughs; I heard the sun shining before I saw it. Back home, in the quiet study corner of the library, an old man chuckles at a headline in his newspaper.

I associate silence with solitude, but it opens my ears to close connections I might otherwise forget — with the trees, with my neighbors, with the Jiminy Cricket conscience that chirps at me when it’s time to stop and listen.

What does silence mean to you? What do you hear when you open your ears?

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4 thoughts on “Ringing in the New Year

  1. For me, silence is vulnerable…it leaves space for our fears, or what we don’t want to face, to come up to the surface. And that is precisely why it’s so precious. I try to take time out away from the sounds I am normally surrounded by, so to hear my Self speak and process with pure attention. Powerful, and humbling, yeah? : ) Happy new year!

    • Great point that the quiet thoughts are not always easy ones to face. But those can be the ones that need the most focused attention. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Silence is something I cannot recall, and thanks to ceaseless buzz and whirr of tinnitus—even in my “deaf ear”—I suspect I shall never consciously experience an absence of sound. I do know quiet though; and stillness, when environmental noise and thought buzziness meet in a tired lull. It’s not something I can conjure at will, but I’ll take it whenever I can get it.

    • I like the concept of “buzziness” —where activity meets sound— and its counterpart of stillness, where quiet meets rest. I don’t know if noise keeps us moving or vice versa? Maybe it’s a little of both.

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