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Breaking the Sound Barrier
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. 7/27/07

It’s a noisy world and it’s getting worse. Am I the only one noticing this? Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting old and cranky, but noise pollution seems to be getting worse with each passing year and I’ve seen a fair number of years pass. They aren’t going quietly.

My wife and I are not fond of air conditioning, preferring open windows and fresh air. Fortunately, you don’t need it in Coronado. (The air conditioning, that is. Even Coronadans need fresh air.) Nature provides the air conditioning for free in the form of prevailing onshore breezes. Well, not entirely free. You pay a price of sorts because along with the fresh air comes the sounds of Coronado produced mostly by lawn mowers, edgers and blowers operated by hundreds of mow, blow and go crews patrolling the streets looking for grass taller than one inch.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

Sometimes, the open windows also let in the sounds of San Diego, the big city across the bay. The San Diego Symphony, of which we are ardent fans and supporters, perform summer pops concerts on the bay front. No noise pollution involved there, of course. But as a way to generate more needed revenue, it rented out its stage and equipment, already in place at that venue, to a promoter for purposes of staging rock concerts featuring bands with weird names like “Radiohead” and “Widespread Panic”.

The latter describes the reaction in Coronado on the first evening that a rock band’s enormously amplified sounds came thundering across the bay with warlike fury, drowning out the sounds of the Navy jets landing at North Island and disturbing the peace of all but the dead and the profoundly deaf. It’s hard to believe that a half dozen guitar strummers and a drummer, wired for sound, can actually generate more volume than a 120-piece symphony orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s “Overture 1812”, even accompanied by a dozen Marine howitzers, fireworks and the Navy Band.

It’s been said that the day we first unscrewed the schoolhouse desks and chairs from the classroom floors was the day we began to lose control in the schools. I maintain that the day someone first plugged a guitar into an amplifier was the day we began to substitute volume for quality in popular music. It also began a serious decline in hearing ability for many fans of such music and anyone else who happened to be within a three mile radius of a speaker.

In a well-documented article in U.S. News & World Report, Bernadine Healy, M.D. describes the extent of the decibel damage. On a scale where zero decibels (0 dB) is silence, normal conversation is 60 dB and a noisy bar is 100 dB, a rock concert typically generates up to 140 dB. Regular exposure to just 85 dB, says Dr. Healy, is toxic to the ear, destroying inner ear nerve endings and possibly causing permanent hearing loss.

We Navy veterans know about hearing loss, having been regularly exposed to naval gunfire, ship prolusion machinery and aircraft noise and much too macho to wear hearing protection. Ear protection is now mandatory but it’s too late for us, which is why many of us struggle to hear a normal conversation in a room full of talking people. We just nod and smile and act like we are actually hearing you. I recently attended a wedding reception during which spoken conversation was impossible. We shouted ourselves hoarse until we realized that the only activities possible were dancing (which left me out), drinking, eating and lip-reading.

Our kids, of course, are catching up with us by destroying their hearing, also. (Investment tip: buy stock in hearing aid companies.) Sometimes they act like they are ignoring you but they probably just can’t hear you. Those things in their ears, by the way, are not ear plugs. They’re tuned in to more ear-splitting sound and tuned out to you and the rest of the world.

The sponsor of the four remaining rock concerts, being a good neighbor, heeded the complaints of Coronado residents and cancelled them. A  San Diego Union-Tribune editorial, lamenting the loss of these events and the revenue they would have brought to the symphony, said that amplification is an “important ingredient” of modern music. Well, that’s debatable but I guess everything is relative. What is not debatable is the hearing damage being caused by exposure to greatly amplified music. Moreover, it should not disturb the peace of neighboring cities.

Fans of greatly amplified music have a perfect right to destroy their own hearing, of course. Neither they nor the producers of these concerts, however, have a right to force loud music upon their neighbors. That goes as well for motorists who drive through neighborhoods or pull up alongside you, windows down, determined to share their music with you at 160 dB. It also goes for the operators of restaurants and other public facilities who seem to think that the purpose of what used to be called background music is to drown out all normal conversation. CRO

copyright 2007 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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