ACCORDING TO the World Health Organization, exposure to noise "has been associated with" mental illness and with "development of neurosis and irritability," not to mention tinnitus (ringing in the ears), loudness recruitment (abnormal loudness perception), adrenaline release, and elevated heart rate, pulse, and respiration rates.
Coincidentally, I conducted my own scientific experiment on the topic just last week and reached practically identical conclusions. The setting was a doctor's office, where I was awaiting a nonserious but unpleasant procedure involving lasers and gynecological implements. I was nervous but prepared: Given my tendency to hyperventilate at the sight of a white coat, I had brought along my favorite book by American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, and I was attempting to "find my center," or at least manage my jumpy pulse and rising bile, with her calming words.
But the Buddha was no match for receptionists Virginia and Sharon, two formidable dames who probably hadn't needed a day's centering in their lives. They had set up a boom box behind the desk, and had enlisted the considerable talents, and volume, of the Village People to help get them through the workday. "Macho, macho man (yeah, yeah)," hummed Virginia. "Just leave your paperwork and have a seat. The doctor'll call you soon. . . . I've got to be a macho man. . ." She was massive and intimidating. Except for her gender, the song seemed appropriate. Sharon was on the phone with a patient. I imagined the greeting: "Dr. Smith's surgery and juke joint, can I help you?"
Don't get me wrong: I love disco. Seriously. I spent my formative years at Spinoff roller rink on Lansdowne Street, mastering axels to the strains of Donna Summer and the Bee Gees. There's a time and place for a pounding backbeat, no question. But 2 p.m. at the doctor's office is not it.
In fact, I wouldn't mind a little music-free peace and quiet in other shared environments as well - department stores, lobbies, parks. Silence characterizes wilderness and spiritual sanctuaries, our holiest public spaces; why do we not make more of an effort to transplant some of that serenity into our daily lives, especially when the urban environment is so deafening already? Unless you live in the woods, where the average sound level is 30 decibels, you're probably spending much of each day trying to filter out the ceaseless racket of traffic (average 85 dB inside car), subways (average 95 dB), and construction (between 84 and 113 dB, according to the CDC, depending on the machine being used). The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse calls the air through which second-hand noise travels the "commons," and it's trying to protect this metaphorical village green through such initiatives as "Quiet Classrooms," "Quiet Lawns," and "Quiet Lakes." But it's slow, and loud, going. When you consider that the physical-discomfort threshold for sound exposure begins at the level of a telephone dial tone (80 dB), you realize just how amped-up our modern environment has become. The human pain threshold for sound exposure starts around 110 dB, the same volume as a jackhammer on the street.
The Village People were logging in at well below pain level. Nonetheless, my head was pounding merrily with each percussive beat. As WHO points out, one's perception of what is annoying noise can also play a role in one's physiological reactions.
I kissed enlightenment goodbye, shut my book, and fastened on a middle-aged woman sitting across the room as a potential ally. "How about this music," I commented.
"What?" She couldn't hear me.
["Body, it's so hot, my body/ Body, love to pop my body. . ."] It was as if six party-boys in leather chaps were in the room.
"I said, how about this music?"
I approached the desk. "Would you mind turning down the music? It's making me kind of - ['Hey! Hey! Hey hey hey!'] - nervous."
Virginia raised her eyebrows and waited until I'd shrunk several inches. Then she reached over to the boom box, gave the dial an infinitesimal nudge, and resumed humming. I'd been dismissed.
By the time I made it to the interior office, I must have looked pretty bad, because the doctor took one look and whipped out her pad. "Here's a prescription for Vicodin," she said. "It'll help you relax." I clawed at the paper. "After the procedure," she added.
When I staggered out 40 minutes later, Virginia and Sharon were regaling their captive audience with the next tune in the lineup: "Y-M-C-A, it's fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A!" Oh, boy.
A few days later, I was sitting in a coffee shop with a friend when Sadé came on over the sound system.
"Ah, music" my friend sighed. "Soothes the savage breast."
Well, yes and no.
Juliet Eastland is a writer in Brookline.