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Last Updated: Monday, 5 November 2007, 14:39 GMT
Noise annoys
Girl puts finger to lips

By Mark Vernon

Silence is golden, but it's under threat in a world where as business booms and prosperity looms, noise is growing.

A composer recently described how orchestras find it impossible to play a piece of her music. The problem is not that she has written too many notes. Neither is it that she requires unusual musical instruments. Rather, it is that in the piece she has written 25 seconds of silence.

The pause is intended to build tension. But when they see it, she said, conductors baulk. They fear that musicians wouldn't know what to make of it, and worse, that audiences wouldn't be able to take it. Over such a long period of time, a concert hall would be plunged into near panic.

When the last episode of the Sopranos was broadcast this year, finishing with a sudden cut to black and silence, many baffled viewers assumed there was a fault with the signal.

Lewis Hamilton blocks out noise with fingers in ears
Lewis Hamilton is moving to Switzerland for a quieter life

We live in a society with a growing aversion to the emptiness that comes not just with silence but, more generally, with a fear of not knowing what to say.

Consider what might mark someone out as your best friend. For some, it is the person who they don't see for some time and yet, when they do, it is like they have never been apart. Perhaps more commonly today, in the era of mass mobile communication, a best friend is someone with whom you are in constant contact, texting or messaging as automatically as breathing.

But there was a time when it was said that a true friend is someone with whom you can sit in complete silence, without a hint of embarrassment or need to fill the space.

Silence as sin

Then there are politicians. For them, to be caught off guard in front of the cameras could result in nothing less than the curtailing of a career. Alastair Campbell famously filled the political day with the "grid". He argued that 24-hour news loathes a vacuum and that if he did not fill it, an editor or producer would. That is undoubtedly true.

But as Douglas Hurd has observed, on some subjects silence might not only be a good policy, it might be more honest. "Silence is regarded as a sort of sin now, and it has to be filled with a lot of gossip and sound bites," he has written.

Anti-noise placards
Some people are ready to defend their right to quiet

Not knowing what to say can be social death, as well as political. Everyone can remember a time when they got into a tangle over something, and then - horror of horrors - they then said the wrong thing; they were in a hole and could not stop digging. It can be amusing to watch.

Probably the most famous episode of the classic comedy Fawlty Towers was built around Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese, trying not to talk about the war. "Don't mention the war!", he endlessly repeated and mentioned nothing but, because he could not just shut-up.

Research suggests that there is a connection between the wealth of a society and the levels of noise within it. A project at Sheffield Hallam University tracked the levels of noise in UK for a number of years. It is rising - in Sheffield city centre, for example, by 3 decibels in 10 years.

Firework hell

A report from the Noise Association this month says that sound levels on the Piccadilly Line of London's underground can exceed that of a jet taking off at Heathrow Airport. And complaints about noise from domestic premises rose almost fivefold in the twenty years up 2005 in England and Wales, according to the UK government.

Then there is Bonfire Night and fireworks. "All the surveys show that people are concerned about noise," Val Weedon, National Coordinator for the UK Noise Association says. "The fireworks issue is an example of that. Thousands of people contact their MPs about it getting out of control."

Plane flies over homes
Planes are loud but so is public transport

Now, for all that we can hate it, it might be that we use noise and chatter to protect ourselves. There are people who can't stop talking and would panic if they did.

And then there are iPods and Walkmans that create a bubble of noise to keep the outside world out. Some users might even be listening to Simon and Garfunkel singing their song, Sound of Silence: "People talking without speaking, People hearing without listening."

But does this matter? I think it does. I know a monk. He spends the majority of his day not talking. The aim is that he lives in quietude punctuated by periods of noise - when in chapel or talking with his brethren.

A more usual way of life is exactly the opposite, for most people live in noise and occasionally seek out silence.

Speech is shallow

For a monk, not talking has an intrinsic value, since it is then that he is able to listen, notably to the "still, small voice of God". To put it in secular terms, silence is necessary in order to perceive and understand things.

As Thomas Carlyle wrote: "Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as time."

That, then, might be the most profound worry about rising noise levels in our society: it stops us from thinking. Or to put it differently, the next time you don't know what to say, don't be alarmed. Try saying nothing.

Mark Vernon is the author of What Not To Say: Finding the Right Words at Difficult Moments.


Send us your comments using the form below.

After meditating for many years I am still constantly amazed by the richness of silence. If one takes the time to be in silence noticing sensations, sounds, thoughts and feelings we will see that silence is the condition or quality of being. Being human. We seem to have largely lost our ability to be and feel the need to do and see silence as moments filled with nothing opposed to being filled with an abundance of what it is to be human. After all we are human beings and not human doings...
Mike Visagie, Manchester

There seems to be an aversion to silence. All anyone need do is notice how many people seem unable to relax in their back garden without throwing open the patio doors to let their hi-fi blast out, or those who are unable to clean their car without having its stereo switched on.
Dave, Cheshire

There should be a petition to stop the introduction of 'ibus' on london buses. Every time the bus stops a loud speaker will announce the number of the bus, it's detination and the current stop. All irrelevant information, continuosly repeated to completely ruin your journey.
Paul Dimitriou, london

Windchimes. Why do I have to put up with my neighbours windchimes day and night? I have to listen to them clanging away even when my neighbours aren't home. I long to hear nothing.
Paula Taylor, Los Angeles (expat)

I love silence and it's definitely more difficult to find. I don't own an MP3 player or anything like that because when I'm on the bus I prefer to think and ponder. I'm amazed at the inanity of the chatter on mobile phones on public transport. It's usually, "I'm almost at Princes St." or "I'm passing a KFC right now". I doubt that many people have epiphanies on the bus, so why does the prospect of a little time for introspection and self-reflection scare so many people? Bring back daydreaming!
Ben, Edinburgh

I yearn for silence - to have that peace and quiet - a space in my head to turn off the thoughts. If only that were possible - to bring the thoughts to a standstill - to allow total silence in my head. Even in sleep the dreams can be constant - the subconscious thoughts. I love the analogy of not seeing a good friend for a while and then carrying on just where you last left off. I have several friends like that; life's busyness gets in the way, but when you do chance or plan to meet up, you can just pick up the connection and carry on. Meditiation and prayer that allows us to hear what messages we need to hear, instead of always asking and thinking and analysing is what is needed in today's busy world.
Liz Harris, Tunbridge Wells, UK

I think that Douglas Adams got it scarily correct when a race of people talked incessently in order to stop their brains working, I think we use all the noise as an excuse to turn our brains off. Turn on, tune in drop out - maybe we should turn off drop in and start thinking again.
Kay, Bampton, Oxon

It amazes me how anti-social people are on public transport by playing ipods way too loud. Tip for ipod users: think about your fellow passengers! Buy some decent headphones, and keep it at a reasonable level. Yes, you may be relaxing after a day at work on your way home, but so am I when I'm trying to read a book, with your tinny beat infringing on my journey.
Dan Maguire, Leeds

Noise is a huge part of modern life and it causes a lot of stress. People have lost touch with nature and peace, it would do everyone a lot of good if they spent at least half an hour a day sitting still, eyes closed doing NOTHING! In other words, meditating and clearing their minds of all the things that clutter up their heads. A bit of peace and quiet goes a long way to restore health and harmony in ones life! Give it a go!
Angie Grainger, London

I'd like to sit in silence on the bus and read my book. But I am forced to listen to a walkman in order to drown out the noise of other people talking on the phone, or worse still listening to music through the loudspeakers of their phone. Noise begets noise. It also begets violence. If I could get away with it, I'd cheerfully kill the person next to me who forces the banal details of his life upon me in a one-sided telephone conversation. I'd probably be racking up 20 or 30 murders a day though...
Lawrence Napper, London

I agree that silence is golden and that the world has become far too noisy. I thought there were laws about fireworks. Why can't the excessively noisy ones be let off earlier in the evening and not saved until the end at midight! Also, I work in an solicitors' office with four other women, two radios and four computers. The most wonderful parts of the day are early morning before the others arrive - silence! and if I'm lucky when they all go out to lunch and leave me alone to turn off the radio and enjoy the SILENCE.....! I thought I was alone in wishing there was more of it. At work I want to suggest a rota where we could choose a radio station for a day (as none of us agree which one to listen to). On my day we would turn the radio off!
Pauline Jones, Abbey Wood London UK

I agree with the bit about fireworks. This year they have been louder, gone on for longer and have quite literally shook my windows at times! It's called bonfire NIGHT - so it should be for one night - not four or five. Fireworks should also only be sold to organised displays not individuals who run amock around the streets!
Sharon, Teddington

The week before last I was in Tenerife and, whilst Hiking up Mount Teide appreciated the ability to stand still and hear absolutely nothing (If you don't count my heart pounding like mad because of the exertion at altitude) It really does make you realise what a noisy environment we live in.
Bob Armour, Crawley, West Sussex

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