Positive and Negative…

I have been wondering a bit about the potential ‘negativity’ of the Irritate-O-Meter, and asking myself whether it really is actually ‘negative’ to focus on the sounds that people find difficult in the everyday soundscape. From reading my PhD document, it ought to be obvious that I am all about finding new ways of celebrating the everyday soundscape; so why would I want to draw attention to the ordinary sounds that are irritating?

Well, because I’m not an idiot and I don’t think my audience are idiots either.

I think it’s not very helpful to tag the value judgement of ‘negative’ onto people finding lots of everyday noises difficult.
Although many physical, everyday items or situations remain underappreciated or go even unnoticed, the same can’t be said about one’s everyday experience of the soundscape, because most of the time people DO discuss everyday sounds quite a lot, and often in the context of ‘this noise is driving me crazy.’

I think it’s really, really important to find a positive way to address the seriously difficult issues with everyday sound that many people actually have. Hence, the irritate-O-meter and the top 20 chart of irritating noises. Why not find a way to simultaneously address the issue of difficult sounds, make it fun, and make the entire topic of the everyday soundscape accessible to an audience who may otherwise find no recognisable route into what we are doing with the Fantastical Reality Radio Show? It’s not simply that people haven’t considered the joys of their everyday soundscape, so much as that they already have a very involved and sometimes quite difficult relationship with it. People suffer intensified stress at work because of exposure to noise, people sue people because of noise, and people develop products to protect our ears from the onslaught of urban, industrial, everyday soundscapes. Some people write of sound being deployed as a weapon during wartimes. Sound can really, really hurt. I’ve had friends call me at 3am in tears because their drunk flatmates are making so much noise. I know people who have moved house because the neighbourhood was too noisy for them. I’ve fallen out with people over noise.

There is no visual equivalent; you can make a really, really disgusting or offensive visual, but you can’t physically harm someone’s sight by unveiling that image… sound is different.

So my intention with the irritate-O-meter is not to be ‘negative’ so much as to be realistic about what the everyday soundscape represents to many people and to provide a recognisable and hopefully humourous route into that.

I think that in a project that deals with everyday sound, it is important to cover a wide range of responses to everyday sound; the Irritate-O-meter and the ‘what sounds do you find irritating’ feature of the show is not intended to be ‘negative,’ so much as one approach out of many that looks at everyday sound. What I have found so far is that people, when they hear others talking about irritating noises, start nodding and smiling in agreement with what they are hearing and adding in their ten cents. The mention of irritating noises does not, in my experience, inspire a bitchfest; rather, the discussion of irritating noises brings people together because of a common or shared experience, and often the discussion of irritating noises instigates a good deal of humour. I have also found that people talking about irritating noises opens the doorway to other kinds of considerations of sound, and even asking the question ‘what sounds do you find irritating?’ causes people to really think about their emotional relationship to everyday sounds.

I think an audience would be far more receptive to the idea that everyday sounds are interesting and amazing if they recognise that their unappreciative (and valid) feelings about the noisy neighbour’s hoovering have some room for expression in the show.

I think there is a lot of scope for introducing a more appreciative relationship of everyday sounds – otherwise why am I doing the PhD topic that I am doing? – but I also want to recognise the extent to which sound does actually hurt people sometimes. I would feel like I was glossing over a glaringly obvious point if I point-blank refused to acknowledge somewhere in this show that everyday sounds are not simply ‘under-appreciated,’ but often actively resented and sometimes a source of suffering.

I think it would be far more ‘negative’ to simply refuse to admit, in our project, that some sounds are difficult, or to provide a serious and miserable feature focusing on that fact. The top 20 irritating noises feature of the show is about finding a fun way of acknowledging the irritation factor of many sounds and also finding a way of recognising and celebrating the shared experiences that exist between people on the issue of irritating noises. (Like a top 20 chart.)

I am interested in celebrating things as they are; to me the top 20 irritating noises chart does exactly that. It is not ‘negative’ to acknowledge that a lot of sounds are difficult; in fact it often brings about positive change. In the poll that’s running on my other blog re: irritating sounds, advert-break blare is currently the most irritating sound. At some point this year it is going to be made illegal for advertisement breaks to be played at higher volumes to the rest of the programming, because it is recognised as an abuse of the audience to blare adverts at them loudly in between whatever they are watching.

I think that’s a good thing, and it has come about through people really engaging with the sounds they are hearing, and forming an opinion about them. It’s not an un-informed opinion, or an opinion borne of lack of appreciation for the sound of advert blare; it’s an honest, human response to offensive noise pollution and I think we need somewhere in the show that attends to the intelligence of our audience on the matter of the sounds they dislike as well as having all the great features we have planned that celebrate sounds and give us the opportunity to listen in a different way to sounds we have taken for granted.

So… I don’t know if the ‘negative’ / ‘positive’ value judgement on whether sounds are irritating or not is useful. I think some sounds are irritating and it is not symptomatic of a lack of appreciation that we think them so. On the other hand, I think there is much we could now do to develop our imaginative engagement with sound, and much we could do to increase our appreciation of the everyday sounds that we hear.

But I do not think acknowledging our irritation at certain sounds is mutually exclusive from celebrating others. To me, irritation, delight, wonder, intrigue and annoyance are all valid responses to the world we hear and are all part of our full engagement and listening. What do others think?

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