Noisy Noise Noise… NOISE!

by holly northrop

Last week I visited a brand spanking new library which opened locally. It’s impressive, all right. There are literary quotes woven into the carpet, big red armchairs which allow patrons to look from an enormous window to the street outside, numerous standup computer terminals, and flash decor which feels like something between an airport departure lounge and a Borders bookstore.

There is also a sizeable children’s play area, smack bang in the middle of the library, with furniture designed for romping and a data projector on the ceiling depicting giant, foot-sized ants onto a paddling-pool sized rectangle of carpet below. No amount of squinting at the ceiling allowed me to work out how this works, but if you stand on the ants, they get ‘squished’ and disappear; a satisfying ‘bug-squish’ sound reverberates throughout the library space.

‘Satisfying’ if you’re a kid, that is.

If you’re at this library to study — and you might well be, because it’s attached to a community learning institution — you can always take refuge in one of the glassed-in study rooms which have also been provided.

I was glad to see those. Because despite being the owner of a three-year-old, and also of an open plan house with wooden floors, my tolerance for noise isn’t that high. I need regular periods of peace and quiet.

Sometimes I say this and feel all alone in my age group.

It’s usually people several decades older than me writing  in to local newspapers bemoaning the cacophony of pop music piped through cheap speakers in shopping centres ‘these days’.

It’s usually the retired and the out-of-touch who speak disapprovingly of ‘young mothers’ who won’t make any effort to keep their children orderly in restaurants and movie theatres.

But these old grumps have a point.


There is ever-increasing acceptance of individual difference: sexualities/eating preferences/body shapes, but are we equally schooled up on our own individual learning types, and as part of that, of our individual reactions to noise?

I’ve noticed three broad types of people in this world:

1. Feels invigorated when surrounded by external stimuli.

Others might call it noise, but competing sounds are instead processed as excitement. This sort of person is often drawn to nightclubs, big cities, music concerts, crowded pubs. Much prefers watching sports events as one of a crowd. Loves mardi gras. But this sort of person can feel lonely without some sort of external stimulus, and is inclined to switch on the television when returning home to an empty house, even if they’re not actually watching it. Can feel uncomfortable with lulls in a conversation, and conversational style reflects that: Will repeat oneself, interrupt others or add fillers before allowing gaps in dialogue with people they don’t know well. Type ones can think and talk at the same time. Indeed, thinking is talking.

2. Ambivalent about noise.

Type two is able to retreat into their own mind regardless of external stimuli. Would probably choose to live in the suburbs, where intermittent trips to the city provide occasional excitement. Can study in a cafe, or while listening to a radio, though may have personal preferences requiring white noise or music without lyrics for certain types of work.

3. Needs silence.

This sort of person — often called an introvert — feels most invigorated after a period of solitude. The minimum amount of time preferred varies from person to person — it might be 20 minutes a day, or it might stretch to hours. This sort of person can become frustrated when living with others who need noise, because radios and televisions running in the background interrupt private thoughts and feel like an intrusion. These people most likely live in urban areas (because most people these days are urban dwellers) but their idea of a holiday is more likely to be somewhere less bustling, not more bustling, than their regular daily life. Their best thinking is done when external stimuli is at a minimum. Some people of this type can feel harried during fast paced conversations, and will utilise silences in a conversation as thinking time.

I’m type number three.

I think this is the least understood type, and also the type less and less catered for, in a world where we are all expected to just put up with sounds inflicted upon us by others.


1. Forced Exposure to Music

It’s true that you can’t go into certain shops — especially clothing stores — without music blaring loudly from the speakers.  No matter — I can avoid clothing stores bar a few times per year, when it’s in and out for me. (I don’t enjoy clothes shopping. I can also tell you, after having worked in a women’s clothing store, that most women don’t enjoy clothes shopping. Many women enjoy having shopped. There’s a difference.)

Unless you’re also type three, however, you may not have noticed the constant noise over loud speakers in a supermarket. I can’t understand why workers in large shops still think it’s necessary to talk to each other over the loud speaker. Pagers were invented ages ago. Why not make use of those instead, clipping them onto the belt of your work pants at the start of each shift, along with your name badge? Customer service training might require etiquette about not checking a pager until after dealing with a customer, but surely an entire supermarket full of shoppers doesn’t really need to know that a price on Durex ribbed is required at checkout number nine, or that someone spilt a yoghurt in aisle five.

Also, as a type three individual, I would add that low-volume music piped through cheap speakers is even more irritating than music played loudly on high quality speakers. Basically, unless I’m listening to my own music, selected and paid for by myself, I don’t want to hear anybody else’s music. I don’t even want to hear my own favourite music when it’s forced upon me as I’m trying to work out how much change I’m owed from a fifty. Besides, nothing but nothing sounds good coming out of supermarket speakers, especially when it’s punctuated by incomprehensible mumblings from middle management.

Those who need the background stimulus of music while shopping for soap and spuds have always got the option of ear buds. Those of us who prefer quiet don’t have any choice in the matter. There’s a problem with that. (Of course, I can’t write any of this without sounding like Shocked and Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.)

2. Education Policies Which Promote Technological Literacy and Student Centred Learning… At the Expense of Peace and Quiet

Is it just me, or have schools become noisier?

With caveats, computers in schools are a great thing. Within the next decade I predict all students in this country will be making use of laptops during lessons and reading books from tablets and e-readers. Many already do.

What concerns me about some of the software being produced for these devices is that some developers assume bells and whistles (mindless sound effects, in other words) will grab students’ attention and lead to greater engagement with the learning material.

This is a dangerous assumption and I’d like to see more research into it. The vocab training software I used several years ago in the foreign language classroom required each student make use of personal earphones. The computer lab was next to the library, and one day, while taking an English class in the library, I overheard a relief teacher in there, using the same software with someone else’s class, unaware that the headphones were hidden inside the cupboard. The noise coming out of that room was horrendous, yet none of the students thought to tell the teacher where to find the headphones. I told her myself, mainly because I — alone? — couldn’t put up with the noise coming into the library for our ‘silent, sustained reading’ session. (SSR is a well-known concept in New Zealand. I suspect it’s one of the few intervals in a school day where type three students get a 20 minute period in which to enjoy the thoughts going on inside their own heads.)

I did wonder what proportion of the students in that noisy class of 25 would have fit into type three, like me, and therefore found it impossible to concentrate on the task at hand. None of them had said anything. This software was designed to promote vocab memorisation, and after years of studying foreign language myself, I know that I can’t do this when surrounded by noise. I acknowledge that not everyone is like me — many of my university classmates said they could only study with some sort of background noise, and preferred the cafe over the library. That’s okay. The world caters for that. What about the rest of us? What are the proportions of type threes in a typical classroom?

It concerns me that schools aren’t offering enough quiet time in the school day. With emphasis on group work, and co-operation and peer-teaching, it can sound terribly old-fashioned to insist that a class work in silence at all — indeed, it’s very draining to enforce, because many students aren’t used to it now, so a teacher must have complete control of classroom management — but I think there are more students distracted by background noise than we realise.

They may not know it themselves. Maybe no one ever told them it’s okay to need silence. Instead, I see some ‘forward thinking’ principals keen to see students making full use of technology in the classroom, and this often includes listening to music as they work. It’s a mark of comradeship, to share a single pair of ear buds with the classmate sitting next to you. It wouldn’t be easy for a kid to opt out of such an invitation.

But not all students work well while listening to music — and despite some evidence that certain types of classical music promote certain types of thinking — actually, you know, not many students are listening to that. I fear it’s become almost nerdy (and not in a good way) for a student to require silence during class. Besides, if students aren’t getting silence at school, are they getting it at home?*

*There’s increasing evidence that high school students aren’t getting enough sleep, and I suspect it’s because they’re reclaiming ‘me-time’ in their own rooms late at night, because that’s the only time they get to be inside their own heads over the course of a typical school day. Is it possible that we’re overstimulating our teenagers?

I do wonder how many doctors, lawyers and physicists spent the bulk of their study hours listening to music. The law library at my university was one of the few places you could go if you wanted to be sure of silence — the furrow-browed law students poring over their books ensured it by scaring noisy intruders away with the stink eye. I’m inclined to think that, even for thinkers who do okay on music, that there are certain complex ideas which can really only be processed after deep and prolonged time to oneself.

Silent time. Silent time and more sleep.

Might educational outcomes really be improved by focusing on something as simple as that?

Related Link: City Life Could Change Your Brain For The Worse.

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