by Monty Munford
The scientists, companies and “soundscapers” on a quest to make our society quieter and less stressful.
Like many musicians, Andrew Flintham had trouble making that difficult second album.
Two decades ago, the record producer completed The Brecklands Dawn Chorus, a one and a half hour recording of early morning bird song. It went on to become the biggest-selling wildlife recording of the 1990s. But 15 years later, whilst trying to make a follow-up, he hit an impasse. The problem was not a lack of creativity, but a paucity of available content. From the mountains of Scotland to deepest Wales, he was unable to find an uninterrupted dawn chorus anywhere in the UK.
“The most I could gather was about five minutes,” he says. “When I played back all the recordings there was always a hum of noise that drowned out the birds. It was either the drone of traffic, civilian aircraft, military jets, electricity sub-stations or even mobile phone masts and that was in 2008. I’ve tried in several places since then and it’s become worse.”
Flintham’s tale, which many will find tragic, reminds us just how rapidly societies are changing. He believes that we live in a constant rush-hour, having replaced Monday to Friday, nine to five working patterns and leisurely weekends with 24/seven shift working and its accompanying constant din. For Flintham, it has made life worse. And, he is by no means alone. Campaigners and health organisations point to a growing body of evidence that noise can profoundly affect our health and emotions. The World Health organisation, for example, says that persistent sounds of just 30 decibels, equivalent to someone whispering in a library, are enough to disturb sleep patterns. As a result, politicians are starting to take note, and as the public starts to react against the ever-growing cacophony, businesses are responding with products designed to bring back the peace and quiet of years gone by.
Actress Poppy Elliott is one of those (quietly) leading the charge. The granddaughter of John Connell, the founder of the UK’s Noise Abatement Society, launched Quiet Mark earlier this year. The charity’s premise is that the reason products are noisy is because it is cheaper to make them that way. It campaigns for quieter products, whether they are airlines, trains, hair-dryers, food-mixers or even musical instruments. The initiative then awards a striking purple Q stamp of approval to products or schemes designed to be sensitive to the ears of those around them.
“Even the inclinations of the sound of our voices can make or break our day,” says Elliott over coffee in a busy café near her home in Brighton, in the south of England. As we speak, a blender roars into action in support of her cause. “Life revolves around the sensitivity of sound. It’s a fundamental pillar of our existence, as important as light.”
Quiet Marks are awarded to encourage companies to produce less noisy products whether they are aeroplanes, trains, hair dryers, food mixers or even musical instruments. Early winners include the Corinthia Hotel in London for providing a quiet haven away from the “urban buzz”, Stihl for its range of quiet lawn movers and hedge trimmers, as well as Yamaha for its range of silent instruments, including a violin that allow headphone-wearing musicians to practice without disturbing others. The construction firm Temple Mace and the London borough of Southwark also recently received one for reducing disruption and noise disturbance during the building of the Shard, the capital’s new landmark tower – particularly important because of the proximity to a prominent hospital.
The Shard’s Quiet Mark award is unique, but it echoes similar moves around the world. In New York, for example, the city’s department of environmental protection rewards contractors who use tools and machinery that are designed to reduce noise. The city even issues guidance to help construction firms buy quiet versions of necessary kit.