The Sounds of Silence

Do you work with the radio on? Do you find yourself more productive if you’ve got a soundtrack for your life? Some kids claim they can’t study without sound around them. Alex loves sleeping in her room in the basement of our house because all the machinery noises – the furnace, the sump pump, the air exchange, — makes for less “silence” which she find intolerable. Me, I like the quiet.

All silences are not created equal; some seem quieter than others, some seem disconcerting. I learned about the texture of silence doing television. After each scene the audio guy would ask for 15 seconds of “room tone” that’s when everyone had to stand stock still and silent as we captured the ambient sounds of the room. No two rooms sound the same, and if you move a body, the sound of the silence changes.

Our brains adapt to the world around us so what is deafening to one person is perfectly tolerable to another who has been exposed and adapted. You’ve heard the phrase, “the silence was deafening?” Well, according to Tom Stafford in his article on BBC’s Future, “The secret to a deafening silence is the period of intense noise that comes immediately before it. When this ends, the lack of sound appears quieter than silence. This sensation, as your mind tries to figure out what your ears are reporting, is what leads us to call a silence deafening.”

When I first moved to the country 10 years ago, one of the things I loved was the silence at night. My night noises were crickets and frogs. And when something disturbed them, they would all stop their chattering, whistling, chirping at once and there’d be complete silence.

I’d go into the city to work and the sounds from the street would travel into my hotel room rousing me several times a night. Do city people even know what silence sounds like? Never mind the ambient light that keeps the stars from view, the ambient sounds – those constant sirens, the horns, the voices raised in joy, anger and drunkenness – all rob the night of its silence.

After sleeping at home in my Little House in Brighton for several nights, a trip to any small city, never mind the big city, meant a noisy night’s sleep. I’d ask for a high-up hotel room, above the 7th floor, when possible, but that usually wasn’t enough.  I had to ratchet up the air conditioner to drown out the sounds from the street.

Then I’d return to Brighton and the nights seemed even quieter. Tom Stafford says that once our brains adapt to one set of experiences, “once the constant stimulation your brain has adapted to stops, there is a short period when new stimuli appear distorted in the opposite way from the stimulus you’ve just been experiencing.” The after-effect of having been exposed to the noisy city is an even quieter country evening. The lack of the city’s cacophony means my country evening sounds quieter.

When was the last time you enjoyed the sounds of silence? How quiet is too quiet for you?

18 Responses to “The Sounds of Silence”

  1. I live in the country too, and love the silence at night especially. I do have a radio on in the house with me though…in the background. Something I got used to as a kid. I grew up on a farm and always took the quiet country sounds for granted. Then I moved to the city….what a shock! I couldn’t sleep with all the noise! Now living in the country again, it makes for wonderful sleep and if I want to get really quiet, I go in the bush for a walk. My in-laws come up to visit and always say they sleep so well here – it’s so quiet! Even though they live in a small town which isn’t too crazy, the lack of any noise at all makes all the difference.
    BTW…Thanks India for getting rid of the tech glitch!

  2. We have a small cottage on an island. No sirens, no cars, no hum of transformers. It’s quiet. I can’t sleep when we go up in the summer. It’s too quiet! That probably sounds so strange to those who live in the country, but we live in west Toronto, right on a major street, so the traffic, sirens and lately, snow plows are part of my everyday life. I had to buy an air purifier and put it on my night table to drown out the quiet!
    The white noise is what I miss. It’s all about what we get used to.

  3. My parents house was very quiet. All you could hear was nature sounds. When I moved out on my own, I ended right down-town of a medium-sized city, and ever since then I’ve always been pretty central so there were always buses, or sirens, or the guy who should get his muffler checked.

    What do I do to drown it out? I run a fan in the bedroom 365 days a year, even when it is -30 outside. I don’t face it towards me, because it’s not for cooling me down. It’s just for white noise to drown out all the random noises of the town outside. I tried a noise machine so I didn’t have to try to balance/battle the temperature due to the fan, but I could always find the loop in the track.

  4. I have been on several silent retreats. I love them. Helps you get in touch with what you are really feeling in life. Of course I still heard other sounds, but no people talking, or t.v. or radio etc.

  5. When I started reading this article I assumed it would apply the noise logic to finances. Maybe that was just me? It immediately got me thinking that your spending habits are a lot like your tollerance for noise – whatever you are used to is “normal” and doing anything different seems strange and uncomfortable.

    After spending beyond your means for a long time I can imagine that suddenly trying to live on a frugal plan would seem like the deafening silence by comparison. I think the take away is that if you stick with something long enough it will become the new normal, and if necessary you can use distractions or tricks to make it feel more comfortable. Like the noise generators for those who find it too quiet, you can build free or cheap fun or rewards into your plan to reward yourself for reaching milestones. Some people can just stick to a new financial plan because the end goal is worth it – others might need to ease the path with some scaled back but familiar non-essential spending.

  6. @ Blaze – I like how you tie this in to the financial environment!

    The sounds of silence – ie cut-out the sound of the cash register! 🙂

  7. Thank you for returning to the original font for your blog!

  8. Like Debbie, I have been on several silent retreats. I love the “sound” of silence. It’s always surprising how after a few days of silence, even the sound of nature can seem loud.

    When I get home from work, I don’t turn on the radio, nor a TV. I need the sound of silence to relax. I think the last time I had true silence was over 10 years ago when there was a large power outage. no white noise, no sounds but nature sounds. I was in heaven! So peaceful….

    @Blaze, interesting connections!

  9. Only 4 more months until it is camping season. It is how we get away from everything – computers, work, traffic. There are the sounds of fire and wildlife, the dog chewing on branches and the buzz of bugs – the best music of life.

    Winter has its own type of tranquility, but can it please be summer now?

  10. I love silence. Sometimes I find nature very loud. For a couple nights when we were on the farm we had an owl perched outside our bedroom window, hooting away, there was no way to sleep through that. And the birds awoke and sang their hearts out at 5:00 AM. I find noises in general difficult to deal with, and a huge invasion of privacy. I shouldn’t have to drown out someone else’s music in my own yard. People in general are overstimulated and need to unplug and take a deep breath, listen to the birds and bugs, perhaps have a conversation face to face.

  11. Dom, I agree. My countdown to camping silence is on. I especially appreciate camping late April to late June and then mid Sept to as late into Oct as possible to get the biggest bang for my silence buck. The older I get the more silence I crave. It drives my husband crazy, but when I’m camping I turn the radio on only to listen to “The World at 6” while I’m doing supper dishes or prep to make sure that the World is still turning and then the rest of the time is nothing but birds, squirrel and the sound of pages turning in my book….ahhhhhhh

    Blaze, I also agree with you. I love to see the silence on my monthly credit card and bank statements as they hit my mailbox. Very few line items. Mostly payments – the balance on the cc goes down the balance on the savings and investments go up….music to my eyes.

  12. Funny how our perspectives on camping are different. We camp occasionally and I go in spite of the noise I know I’ll have to endure. We live in an country neighbourhood where everyone is on 3 acres in the woods. IF I hear a neighbour it’s from far away. I like to imagine any lawnmower I hear through the trees is actually a boat on a lake (makes it easier to take while reading in the hammock). But when we go camping we set up on our tiny assigned patch of “wilderness” with other people doing likewise only a few feet away. No matter how considerate all try to be we are we’re still aware of having people so close, trying to keep our voices down, keep the dog from barking, etc. We camp only to have access to beaches and have a campfire and get the kids away from their electronics, but otherwise I much prefer our own woods where it’s much quieter and I can relax without worrying that we’re bothering the neigbours.

  13. I live in a small town in a little house with room between myself and neighbours with property behind me that no one can build on. since I am up between 4:30 and 5am, even though I am retired, I love the sound of silence before the traffic starts up on the hwy not far from me. its surprising how much is really going on in the early mornings with the birds and wildlife and all the things you get to see when its quiet outside. its so quiet and I really enjoy the peace first thing in the morning. I seldom have the TV or radio on in the house and at night, there is nothing but the noises the house makes in the winter and in the summer, the occasional sounds from the bush, but that’s all there is. I like the sound of a quiet place, am enjoying my life and being appreciative of all I have.
    am not a camper though. I like my creature comforts and make my backyard as pleasant as possible in the summer where I can just enjoy it all. can’t hardly wait for spring and summer though…..

  14. me, i love silence. i read something interesting many years ago when i was researching circadian rhythms. they were talking about how a person was sent into a cave below the earth, in an attempt to understand how the body’s rhythms (sleep/wake cycles for instance) behaved when devoid of the cues of sunlight and sound. when they asked what sounds were heard so far below the earth, he replied that the only thing he could hear was his heartbeat and breathing! can you imagine? where do i sign up for that getaway? 🙂

    i know everyone is different though. hubby likes to work to music. i find it distracting. and with 3 children, well… noise is something i’ve had to learn to cope with and occasionally, escape from.

  15. I live in a noisy medium sized city. I really wish I could live out of town, but that is the way it is. I find that I dislike the traffic sounds, like the kids playing sounds (I live across from a park) and love the nature sounds that I have in my yard. I have a lot of trees and when the wind blows (a lot) I have the wind in the trees sound. That sound is one of my favourites. I sit outside a lot in the summer and listen. There is a bit of street noise nearby, but it’s mostly during the week, so weekends are pretty good. I tune out what I can. What I found interesting about the comments is all the people who have a fan or radio or air conditioner to drown out the city noise. I sleep with my fan on in my room only in the hottest weather and I always wake up to turn it off during the night. It drives my up the wall. haha. I, too, enjoyed your connection to money, Blaze. Way to go. Isn’t that the truth.

  16. Silence! No way for me! For years if I walked in the house and no one was home I would turn around and leave and go next door or somewhere else. It’s only now that I can appreciate an occasional night of silence like once or twice a year will do it. I’ll pass on silence until that’s all that’s all that’s left.

  17. Whether I’m at the cottage or in the city (a medium sized one) I have a hard time sleeping without white noise – like Alicia I run a fan every night for the background hum. The cottage night being silent is a myth…without a fan I’m up at the crack of dawn with the call of the birds (likewise at home), in the spring it’s the frogs and in the summer the night animals. I love them all but silent they are not!

  18. Love your advise & candid manner! We live in Sherwood Park Alberta Canada (rural) & our guests find their visits refreshing & restfull specifically because of the lack of noise. While there is the summer evening with crickets, coyotes, and birds in the morning they wake (usually very late and unrushed and it speaks to our “friends” need for solace and a lack of all the “electrical noise that surrounds us. … Try recalling how quiet you think your home us, that is until the power goes off! … It’s wonderful!!! … If you are ever in town drop a note, dare i say I give a great massage!

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