Acoustic pollution

Report by Silvia Zambrini


Before we can discover the causes of noise pollution and sound pollution, we need to examine the underlying distinction between the two.
The most important mechanism we have in mind when we look for phenomena to help us understand the current invasion of a part of the globe by reproduced sounds must be the rapid development of tertiary industrial society, with the increase in mobility and consumerism that it has brought, and the corresponding expansion of the big cities and proliferation of commercial outlets: this is the context in which the acoustic landscape of our times is undergoing substantial change.
The mass distribution of electric sound systems has created a sweeping change – much more dramatic and global than the auditory impact of the industrial revolution or the subsequent arrival of motor traffic – which has taken us from a soundscape in which individual sounds remain distinct (in the sense that they can readily be traced back to the source from which they issue) to a new backdrop of indistinct sounds coming from many and various sources which we cannot easily identify because their effects overlap and intermingle. In practice, there are two acoustic environment situations in which we have experienced change over a short period of time, and they have quite different consequences: the first arises from the meaningless buzz of machinery and the rumble of motor traffic, which together form what we call ‘background noise’, but which has not yet reached levels above which it is difficult to hear people talking in the street as individual discrete sounds.
The second is characterised by an all-pervading context of recorded sounds and words, piped music and announcements pumped out of cheap movable sound systems (these reproduced sounds are not generally notable for their hi-fi reproduction so much as their ubiquity), spreading across limits of time and space, between private and public.
The established simple dichotomy between the background noise of cars and the soundscape provided by amplified musical and verbal signals certainly does nothing, at the level of the individual’s awareness, to improve our tendency to resign ourselves to the unlimited proliferation of messages that are not directly addressed to us and music we have not chosen to listen to, as against our intolerance towards background noise.
The goal we generally set ourselves is to help make it possible for citizens not to accept the presence of these sounds in public spaces that are not designated for the purpose, and to object to them in exactly the same way as they object to mechanical noise or air pollution.
But there is still a big underlying problem: by now these musical and spoken messages form an integral part of our everyday lives and they condition our thoughts and actions everywhere and at all times.
So how can a citizen of today’s world even become conscious of how invasive they are ?

The great contradiction

A contemporary individual’s life is accompanied by a continual soundtrack of music, messages and noise as a result of an implicit social choice which is based on a deep contradiction.
Noise, which is merely the consequence of our use of machines, does not inform us of any event. We do not have to hear it – perhaps we would all prefer our washing machines to be silent, but few of us would give them up. In any case, the intensity of these noises tends to diminish over time as technology finds new ways to reduce the buzzes and hums produced by electrical equipment and motors. This may never win us a silent world, since we keep getting more and more gadgets as our standard of living increases.
On the one hand, then, we give our consent to this machine noise and resign ourselves to accepting an insignificant background noise level (‘white noise’). But on the other, and this time without getting any improvement to our lives in exchange, we all have to share in a continuous and rampant outpouring of masses of reproduced music and electrical beeps (from talking dolls to amplifiers, piped music and public announcements). And herein lies the contradiction: noise is explicitly taken as the inevitable counterpart of the many advantages its sources bring us. Sounds, however, as soon as they take the form of words or music, are immediately perceived as something that we traditionally accept or even delight in.
The overload that they induce in the mind and in the organism (especially in the case of reproduced sounds) thus never becomes an object of general awareness.

Consumerism and sound build-up

The modern network system, in its distribution of sound signals, has gradually removed every limit and every benchmark from this ever-growing inconvenience. Everywhere, things are being made and moved, enabling more things to be made and to be moved. The criteria by which the infinite sound levels we so apathetically suffer are determined do not reflect geography so much as economic activity. In our consumer society, any concentration of particular services (especially sales outlets and entertainment) leads to a greater movement of people, which already in itself presupposes an increase in amplified sound. Even an individual walking around has become a source of these sounds with his cellphone call-tones, not to mention his walkman music, videogame bleeps and palmtop computer, or even the megaphone he may need if he is selling something. It is hard to imagine a society organised around the ancient ways of life becoming exposed to this continual racket from loudspeakers. In the industrial age, traffic and building noise followed the hours of the factories and sites, which were all located near the large urban centres. Our service society, meanwhile, masses together numerous and disparate effective sound sources, both on the level of individuals’ use and centrally broadcast sound. This is essentially what I meant by the ‘concert’ in my essay on “The City in Concert”: an ‘orchestra’ spreads across the country, rubbing out its borders, marginalising its background noise, building up sometimes even at night (as when a summer camp is in swing) or at particular times of day (as in peak hours around shopping centres) or times of year (fairs and exhibitions), ultimately covering a territory whose diameter continually expands and contracts along with the public who accompany it. Although he may not have been directly targeted, even the person who produces nothing and spends nothing is caught up in the heap and suffers it along with everyone else. Our new acoustic scenario no longer needs large scale industry or city centres to create a disturbance and make it spread rapidly. All it needs is what can already exist anywhere: a few homes and a little commercial activity, some vehicles on the road, and already people and things are moving about. A trivial distribution of everyday economic technology is enough to wrap any town, large or small, in a shawl of indiscernible sounds issuing from an amalgam of different sources.

Music, beeps, mobility and social costs

The economic boom of the 50s produced a mass proliferation of electric sound systems which is now replacing the famous ‘white noise’ of engines and construction machinery with a public information and entertainment service that ends up as just an indistinct muddle of music and sound: think of the usual volume of amplified sounds in public buildings at the moment and the ways they are used by commercial operations to catch people’s attention by blaring out messages into the street. But the attention of passers-by has already been captured to some extent by sound effects emanating from alarm systems, transistor radios, commuters’ mobile phones, and the intercoms of minicabs and couriers, all circulating according to the uneven rhythms of modern economic activity.
The sum of these sound sources creates a continuum between indoors and outdoors, between the centre, the suburbs and the natural countryside, which offers just as many possibilities for producing sounds from a range of unnatural sources: amplified music and acoustic beeps can now be heard in Alpine refuges and on South Sea islands. Drivers’ perceptions of the sounds around them have been greatly eroded by this habit of constantly passively listening to sounds, background music and distorted voices on the telephone: at the wheel we are now so wrapped up in the sounds of our own car that weak noises from outside that might signal the approach of a pedestrian or cyclist who has yet to come into view can no longer be heard.

Sound, noise, and the urban setting

The first step towards spreading the traffic noise away from the centres and putting it in competition with acoustic pollution from reproduced sounds was taken in the 60s. Improvements in transport infrastructure meant that hospitals, prisons, discotheques and shopping centres could be built away from urban centres. And so music and beeps began to invade the suburbs and areas that had once been rural. But the flood of reproduced sound changed the atmosphere in town centres as well, where the ‘soundbox effect’ was accentuated by high-volume electronic church bells and by loudspeakers blaring out messages to tourists and to celebrating locals. The sounds collided in alleyways, amplified by porphyry and cobbles. Street festivals in villages, town districts and historic centres have lost their festive atmosphere of recurrent communal celebration and have become mere exhibitions of consumer goods, with their stage shows and radios on the stalls drowning out the voices of passers-by.

Sounds containing messages

In order to allow processing of the message contained in an advertisement, the volume of the sound cannot be lower than a certain degree (i.e. minimum 70 decibel in the case of adverts in Milan Underground stations). This level already leads to pathologies and sense of unease (headache, insomnia, anxiety, cardiovascular problems and lowered concentration). If the musical message is perceived as unpleasant, it will be interpreted as noise, therefore a nuisance. That’s why we need to change the measuring parameters from intensity of noise (old style acoustic pollution, measured in dB) to quality of noise: the invasive hubbub turns into a subtle poison. Even with the same level of decibels, this hubbub can become more annoying because it contains a message, made worse by the fact that it uses music, in itself a high quality phenomenon. This explains the unreliability of polls to test whether people like or dislike such message-ridden sounds. For a number of people that music and those sounds prove unpleasant to hear, at least in that place and in those moments (even Beethoven’s notes for someone who likes his music), and it should not matter whether those people are the majority or not. Legislation around noise should include this consideration and protect people from the uneasiness produced by unwanted sounds.

Diffusion of sound in different areas

In spite of the fact that CDs offer a better quality of sound compared to past devices, most of the music we hear in public places is not played according to a criteria of sound quality: simple radios, connected to amplifiers, send the music around shops and elsewhere. Managers do not seem to worry about how clearly the sound reaches their customer’s ears. On the other hand, the client is already surrounded by extremely low quality artificial sounds; this happens every time he connects to an internet site, or utilizes a telephone service, with music forcing him to hold the line and listen to advertisement messages he did nor require, such as promotions.
In my book “The City in Concert” I call this phenomenon “media corridors” – music and information are imposed through the improper use of neutral spaces, whether it is the telephone, or the television, which is overcharged with redundant soundtracks, unnecessary for instance in the case of news or information programs.
A person suffering from a stream of anonymous, dirty, particularly invasive acoustic stimuli, will find it hard to distinguish those sounds which, even though they are artificial, have hi-fi quality.

Sounds, Speed and Anonymity in the Service World

The number of broadcasting stations has increased, while the length of the programs has been compressed: previous chances of a break to allow one to catch one’s breath have been suppressed and substituted by a quick pace and sudden changes of volume when adverts are introduced.
This is the kind of entertainment mostly creeping in transit and waiting areas, with a very confused musical background and equally confused speech.
With a pressing and syncopated rhythm, the message given by the radio tends to speed up people’s actions and provokes a state of anxiety (tiredness will be felt later).
This situation can be advantageous; for instance, for the owner of a fast food outlet during a busy time, because in an era dominated by the tertiary industry, people are piloted by speed and hurry, and that owner will benefit from a quick turnover of anonymous clients.
Music is certainly not finalized to elicit a sense of belonging to the place where they eat.

Centralization of sounds containing messages

In department stores sound is more and more distributed through outlets’ radios which play music, but most of all those stores advertise their own products.
This centralized type of message has eliminated any meaningful content from speech.
The spreading of music and information through microphones or loudspeakers saves time and money, as just one source of sound covers a big area (whole squares, beaches, hospital wards, schools). With this process sound becomes part of the institution using it, and the invasion of sounds does not depend on individual choices any longer.
TThe public areas where citizens gather to wait for something or through which they pass by are still different from the private areas, but are in fact more and more eroded by music and high volume messages, to the economic advantage of those who trade there. In these places advertisements of products and services are spread through a centralized source: as there is great turnover of passersby in areas such as train stations, buying the area itself proves economically advantageous. In other cases the imposition of sounds is done to favor local enterprises (hotels and shops) which place loudspeakers outside their premises, so that tourists, beach-goers and simple passersby are induced to feel a false sense of belonging, and in the meantime to listen to the information about the products and services offered there.

Acoustically neutral areas

It seems obvious that big cities need green areas, but not so obvious that there should be neutral areas from the point of view of sound; areas with no redundant, superfluous and imposed sounds and messages. Maybe in the future these areas will be built specifically, and therefore in an artificial way. We will be forced to buy a fake quiet, a consumerist type of quiet. But acoustically neutral zones already exist and should be respected. They are not necessarily totally quiet places (there could be the sound of trains, or they could be the trains themselves). Neutral areas are those areas connecting to other places, and where people do not espect to be entertained with music, but where people have a chance to spend the time they have reading, thinking, chatting freely, without having to talk more loudly and unnaturally. Maybe people do not remember this, but these modest and meaningless places have seen the birth of important decisions and deep considerations in the past.


It is not possible to solve the problems we have presented here simply by modifying the planning rules of certain areas according to sound, because centralized sound moves with traders. It can be decided that an area of the city will be reserved for pedestrians only.
But if this area attracts consumers through shops, street exhibits and open air festivals, it will soon turn into an acoustic cage as has never been seen before. Public space exists and needs to be defended from acoustic pollution, as well as new constructions, which lead to an invasion of sounds. Unless we realize that music and sounds are dangerous and erode people’s space more than noise, this phonic chaos will increase with ever more centralized systems forming part of institutions, and individual reactions to a state of unease will prove useless. A quiet background is not incompatible with the liveliness and the variety of elements of a big city. Travel, pathways, waiting time, stops, shopping time should all be possible in an urban context that people could feel as their own.