The Sound of Music? Turn It Down, Please!

If you have scolded and pleaded with your teenage kids about the decibel level of the music to which they expose themselves, but to no avail, you may be pleased to hear that this is a cause regarding which the United Nations is on your side.

If your kids won’t listen to you (or can’t hear you because of the ear-splitting noise), now you can try getting their attention by waving at them the latest warning from the World Health Organization (WHO) about hearing damage from high-volume music and other sources.

The U.N. agency has just released data showing that almost half of all 12- to 35-year-olds listen to their personal audio devices or cellphones at unsafe volumes. About 40 percent of young people are also exposed to damaging sound levels at various public venues.

They recommend that people who use personal audio players should consider limiting their use to one hour a day, and turn down the volume to prevent permanent hearing loss.

More precisely, the research tells us that the amount of time for safe exposure halves with every three additional decibels. That means that volumes of 100 decibels are safe for only 15 minutes. After that, you risk hearing damage.

For example, a loud band is generally up around the 115 decibel range. Thus, scientific confirmation of what we already knew — that the floor-shaking decibel level at the typical chasunah is a menace to public health.

For some of us it isn’t a problem, since 15 minutes is more than we can take before the threshold of audio tolerance is crossed and we have to flee the hall to the relative tranquility outside. Even if it means going out into the street, heavy traffic noise is only about 85 decibels.

It’s not always as obvious as a jackhammer that the noise level has exceeded safe levels. Since most of us don’t carry sound meters in our pockets, the WHO suggests a rule of thumb: “Where you cannot understand conversation around you, you know that this is too loud.”

The reality is that the stress and hearing risks associated with loud noise are often unavoidable. Boycotting loud chasunos is impractical; moral suasion usually meets the plea of “What-can-I-do-this-is-what-the-kids-want” and even provokes indignant complaints if the volume is turned down.

Beyond the wedding hall, there is the great outdoors — motorcycles, truck whistles, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, garbage trucks at dawn… and did we mention jackhammers?

In Israel, there is a veritable bombardment of firecrackers as Purim approaches. The state has put an import ban on the big ones; emergency room doctors and Rabbanim have warned of the physical dangers of even the smaller ones. Yet, the noise from these explosives (which is what they are) continue to pierce the air and the ear during these days in the calendar. There is no connection whatsoever between Purim and firecrackers; it is not a minhag, not a modern extension of the gragger, merely an excuse for disturbing the peace.

But what is one to do? At the chuppah, the chassan and kallah, or their parents, can use the opportunity to consider a quiet place to build a bayis ne’eman.

Japan is a good place to avoid, since it’s been rated as the noisiest country in the world. Spain came in No. 2. The northeastern U.S. was also ranked as one of the noisiest places to live, no surprise. In general, as you might expect, the urban areas are the noisiest.

Somebody suggested Antarctica. Aside from the problem of finding a minyan, it’s not always as quiet as you might imagine. In the summer, the more habitable areas are visited by research planes and tourist boats, and resident scientists power their camps with whirring diesel generators, the rumble of which can be heard for 20 miles or more around.

Several years ago, the Campaign to Protect Rural England declared a spot in Northumberland as ideal for peace-and-quiet seekers. Its secret: being adjacent to a military training area, away from roads. Except, that is, on days when the soldiers are in training, and the rumble of tanks and the crack of gunshots can be heard all around.

Certifiably, the quietest place on earth would be an anechoic chamber, a specially-built soundproof environment. The one at Orfield Labs in Minnesota measures at –9.4 decibels, well below the range of human hearing.

Of course, nobody could live in such a place. It would be torture. The fact is, we crave the noise of society, of nature, and those of us who have spent our entire lives in the city, the sound of machines, too.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch pointed out that the word ir, city, is related to eir, to awaken. Not just in the sense of those unwanted noises that disturb our sleep in the Big Apple. But the noises of conversation, of Torah study, of life, that go on in the city. It is an environment that stimulates. It’s been in the city, by and large, that civilization and creativity have flourished.

So we can appreciate the big noise and bustle of our cities. Just sometimes you might want to carry a pair of earplugs along to the chasunah.