A Love-Hate Relationship with Noise

In secondary school, we were told in Physics class that “noise is unwanted sound”. While we half-heartedly memorised this definition and other physical concepts of sound like loudness, frequency, and quality, we may not have considered the philosophical side of noise. It now appears to me that properly describing noise could present the same quagmire like terrorism, where one’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. But if that analogy is considered too extreme, we may make do with viewing noise as one’s food being another person’s poison.

I attend a church that is soundproof, so you can go by and have no clue that fellow humans are revering in an atmosphere with enough decibels to wake the dead. However, there is a church near our apartment and many times, I find their loudspeakers a grievous irritant to my ears. But then, a few times, while doing the dishes with the kitchen window facing this church, I have found myself flowing with the sounds emanating from those same speakers. At those times, I would ask myself if the soulful or fast-paced melody could justifiably be tagged as noise.

On the other side of the apartment, we have a bar right across the road. This bar seems to have been setup with the sole aim of preventing any quietness within a one-kilometre radius, with music being played sometimes up until 2am at night. At several times, I have wondered if there were any enforceable rules to mandate the bar to be soundproofed. Sometimes, out of desperation, we have wished the bar could lose all its customers and be forced to shut down, so we can have some peace and quiet. But then, there have been a few occasions where some old blues would emanate through the loudspeakers and as I chorus the lyrics, I would wonder yet again about the concept of noise.

And then, there is the nearby mosque that blares its own speakers with methodical precision, adhering to a timeliness that shames the concept of “African time”. Whereas my ears register everything emanating from its loudspeakers as noise, I tell myself that to someone else in the area, the modulating waves are surely not noise. This reminds me of a debate with some colleagues about the rightness or wrongness of preaching in a public vehicle. While a colleague flagged any form of preaching as noise, I drew his attention to the culture of playing music in public vehicles. While some would argue that “secular songs” are universally accepted, I wondered if they considered the views of those who may be opposed to some or even all such songs for whatever reason.

In a country where high decibel sounds seem like part of our lives, I wonder if we can ever agree on what constitutes noise. One person is complaining about churches making noise but is fine with the bar next door. Another person accuses the nearby mosque of noisemaking, yet raises the volume of the sound system with high-powered woofers in his room, happily increasing the vibrational frequency of the building, while his neighbour’s baby downstairs cries in search of sleep. Another person fumes at a police van mindlessly blaring its siren on an empty road, while the loudspeakers in her shop blast the airwaves in hopes of attracting customers to the source of the noise.

But is the alternative to become like the quiet still-waters of European and American towns. I have experienced the quietness of Europe and I do not particularly like that level of solitude. Maybe Nigerian noise has corrupted my ears to demand some insanity as evidence of life, but I do not like the rampant noise across Nigeria’s streets. And so, I remain torn in the middle, trapped in a complicated love-hate relationship with noise. Maybe Nigerian society would someday find a balance and maintain a just-enough level of noise, leaving noisemaking for only the most critical occasions like blaring car horns to greet a friend as we drive down the street.

Image Credit: breslov.org

PS. I have been notified that “writing about noise in Nigeria without acknowledgement of generator noise is like cooking indomie without pepper.” My sincerest apologies to the multitudes of Nigerians who have been traumatised by noise from their neighbours’ power generators.

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