When I visited New York as a child, the din pummeled me. The murderous shriek of subway brakes, the warlike assault from construction sites, boom boxes whose heavy beats clashed in complicated cross-rhythms, then pulled apart — it was all too much, even for a kid from a different loud city. Later, I learned to sort the separate waves and give them meaning, much as infants learn to distinguish a speck of glitter from a tear, a face from a painted wall. Noise pollutes but, unlike most other forms of contamination, it also communicates. We use familiar hisses, bangs, and peals to orient ourselves in the world; unrecognized ones make us wheel and blink. We ask what was that? while trying to gauge the size of a crowd, the category of machine, the magnitude of disaster. Was that a building falling, or just a fork?
After a few months of jagged quiet, noise has returned to New York. Earth movers have arrived to rip out rock and rubble across the street from my apartment, in preparation for a new apartment tower. Crews are piercing the asphalt to lay cable. Drivers are once again trying to honk their way out of gridlock.
There are reasons to be grateful for these annoyances. They signal that people are working, that the future continues to exist. As the historian Emily Thompson writes in The Soundscape of Modernity, a prosperous nation was raised on a prolonged chorus of metallic screams. “American cities simultaneously enjoyed and suffered from the building ‘booms’ of the early twentieth century,” she writes. “Steam shovels chugged and scraped, and pneumatic riveters relentlessly pounded metal on metal as construction flourished across the nation.” Thompson points out that when New York introduced its first zoning code in 1916, it was conceived partly as a tool of acoustic control, separating factories from the areas where people slept. Now as then, we cover our ears against the capitalist racket.
There’s a price to pay for high-volume urbanization. The World Health Organization has concluded that excessive ambient noise can raise blood pressure, slow down brain function, impair children’s development, and, especially for the hearing-impaired, interfere with the ability to understand what others are saying. “Stronger reactions have been observed when the noise is accompanied by vibrations and contains low-frequency components,” a WHO report says. Impulses — the percussive attack of a shooting, say, or the ack-ack of a jackhammer — can drive even deeper into the psyche.
The pandemic offered a temporary reprieve from sound, both in cities and in oceans, giving scientists a once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) chance to study the sudden onset of quiet. The lockdown created a deeply unsettling soundscape, like the hush after an explosion, which extended on week after week. The quietude was revelatory, but not serene. Birds in neighborhood trees assembled into a network of local choirs, and the bated traffic let them be heard. The nights were laced with sirens, but devoid of laughter, arguments, and music. During the day, those of us who ventured out barely greeted each other; there were no curbside conversations. The eerie silence seeped indoors. A friend’s young son asked his parents to remove the clock that had lived in his bedroom for years because, without the masking white noise from outside, its ticking had grown oppressive. Only at 7 p.m. every evening did New Yorkers let loose — banging, singing, tooting, and hollering from the safety of their windows, creating the kind of musical ritual that must have gladdened John Cage’s ghost.
These days, New York still sounds wrong but in a different way, like a metropolis populated solely by machines. For the last few weeks, I have struggled to think over a bone-grinding thrum from several blocks away. It starts each morning at 7 a.m., travels over rooftops, penetrates closed windows, muscles through the covering whine of air conditioners, and seeps into my bloodstream. The culprit is a bank of generators needed to recondition a tunnel beneath the West Side Highway. It’s the kind of essential infrastructure work that continued uninterrupted throughout the lockdown, so the fact that it began recently is apparently coincidental. Even so, I hear that inhuman basso roar as the soundtrack of a summer sandwiched between a spring lockdown and an ominous fall. It drones for hours on end, the pulsations nudging my heartbeat to accelerate, like an IV drip of bad news. It is the moan of an angry city.
I’m told that, contrary to my physiological responses, the drone poses no threat. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection has fielded complaints, sent inspectors, and determined that the dragon violates no laws. Construction noise in New York is regulated by an intricate rulebook that sets acceptable decibel levels for different kinds of machinery. How deafening each project’s rumbles and clangs are allowed to be depends on the site’s normal ambient volume level, so an excavation next to a highway can legally be more deafening than the same job taking place on a tranquil residential street. In other words, if a particular spot is already obnoxiously loud, it’s okay to make it much louder.
What can’t be measured in decibels is the symbolic value we give different kinds of sounds, or the way our psyches respond to them. Quiet is usually treated as an absence of irritation, a state with therapeutic effects. But we also seek out hubbub in bars, clubs, and high-wattage concerts. A few months before nightlife went silent, the Times critic Pete Wells hollered the praises of the restaurant roar. “Restaurants are loud because we’re loud,” he wrote. “With a few exceptions, when we complain about the noise, we’re complaining about ourselves.”
In a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Francesco Aletta and Jian Kang tried to zero in on the components of a “vibrant” soundscape: the aural experience of a festive plaza, say. Moderately high levels of acoustic roughness — quick, sharp jumps between loud and soft — are generally experienced as intrusive and chaotic, but in the context of a busy city, participants registered such variations as exciting. They were also more willing to accept high volumes if they could see who was producing them, especially if they included music. “Vibrancy perception depends on both aural and visual cues,” the researchers noted, “and the presence of people is relevant for both sensory domains.”
In a dense city, noise is competitive; an assertion of control over space. But the need to be heard applies even in rural areas. A few years ago, I spent a couple of days in a small mountain village in Mexico, and found it ringing with festive clamor. A pick-up truck equipped with a PA system roamed the town’s two streets all day, announcing and re-announcing that evening’s festive mass. Evening brought firecrackers, barking dogs, and an outdoor dance band that played late into the night. The town was an object lesson in vibrancy.
For a little while, the reopening allowed us to dream of a city that would be vibrant but not strident. The virus turned us into misanthropic agoraphobes; now, liberated from our lairs, we could fill the streets on foot and make them hum with voices, instead of with cars. In fact, we’re getting the opposite: a damaged city, struggling to regain its stride, full of the noise without the substance of prosperity. Traffic has returned, and the birds’ ceremony of innocence is drowned out. Even designated open streets are gradually being turned back over to vehicles. Instead of ten minutes of pot-banging in the evening, we have the chants and rhythms of protest, which swell, ebb, and migrate unpredictably. In some neighborhoods, the clatter of gunfire, which I remember as the soundtrack of the late 1980s, has come back.
As the critic Kate Wagner has pointed out in The Atlantic, sound is social and therefore also political. “Researchers, urbanists, and citizens have all gotten noise and silence wrong, proposing solutions that are moralistic at best and undemocratic at worst,” she writes. “The fight for silence is often, in reality, a fight for power and control.” One household’s backyard party is another’s neighbor’s nuisance, and disagreements often crystallize cultural shifts in changing areas. Some gentrifiers bring nightlife to formerly sedate blocks; others complain about the old timers’ music. Wagner sees attempts to shush the city as the imposition of suburban values on an urban context.
Cities are — and should be — raucous places of conflict and constructive chaos. Musicians have long thrilled to that cacophony. During the 1920s, when factories, elevated trains, a frenzied construction boom, and the advent of motor cars, turned New York’s volume knob up to 11, composers harnessed that industrial crescendo as a source of excitement and experimentation. Gershwin paid homage to sirens and taxi horns, Billy Strayhorn to the A train. The French-born composer Edgard Varèse arrived in New York in 1915 and, in his spectacularly thunderous Amériques, deployed percussionists by the dozen in an effort to reproduce the clamor of his adoptive city. More recently, John Luther Adams wrote Soundwalk 9:09 to accompany museum visitors on their walk from the Met to Met Breuer.
But in a normally functioning city, the mechanical ballet (the title of another commotion-embracing work by the French-American composer George Antheil) is interspersed with the hollers of a population trying to be heard over the bedlam. For now, those who move around most travel in the antiviral isolation of their cars, making noise that is constant but not humane. I once spent days traipsing around the streets with a recorder to assemble a sonic portrait, not just of New York but of New Yorkers. We’ll know that the city is healing when we start to hear something like it again, a collage of multilingual invectives, street-corner negotiations, one-sided phone calls, doomsday harangues, philosophical dialogues, parental lectures, playground squeals, public courtships, shouted breakfast orders, political come ons, parking-spot disputes, snatches of song — the whole chaotic choir of urban life lived to the loudest.