Noise and annoyance

While noise is an integral part of most human activities, it was only at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s that our sonic environment began to interest researchers. This interest continued to grow with the noise levels in our societies. A researcher at the social and cultural anthropology laboratory of the University of Liège, Paul-Louis Colon published an article entitled “Listening to noise and making annoyance heard” (1). An ethnographical approach to noise.

entendre bruitWe live in a time when noise is very often a source of much inconvenience or even annoyance and is certainly not “much ado about nothing” to use the words of Shakespeare. The annoyance caused takes different forms according to the public concerned. While noise has always been present in our society, urbanization and the development of transport by car and by air have contributed to a marked increase in the noise levels our ears have been subjected to for more than thirty years.  “This increase in noise levels led to an awareness of our sonic environment in the 1970s, it was at this time that politicians began to take an interest in the question of noise and began to think about regulation. In Belgium, the first federal law on noise dates from 1973. It was also at this time that research programs on noise were developed as part of the physical sciences on the one hand and on the other, artistic studies by visual artists and musicians such as the American Max Neuhaus who explored noise and the sonic environment”, explains Paul-Louis Colon, a researcher at the Laboratory of social and cultural anthropology of the University of Liège. This contemplative approach to the sonic environment which was very much in vogue around thirty years ago was succeeded by numerous studies and scientific research both from an acoustic and from a social point of view. The approach adopted by Paul-Louis Colon “is located at the crossroads between two strands of research that it is trying to express”. The first is the question of annoyance linked to noise; the second concerns what can be referred to as “ordinary auditory experience, that is to say the knowledge and know-how attached to listening in everyday life”.

Symbolic and contextual dimension to noise

Having established that the correlation between the noise level and the declared annoyance is relatively slight, research has been carried out in order to discover other parameters which come into play such as the symbolic and contextual dimension. “Context plays an important role. Beyond the acoustic dimension, other factors influence annoyance such as judgments of normality applied to sound, the interpersonal relational context (in the case of neighborhood noise), the way of managing the problem and the attitude of institutions to local residents (as in the case of noise around airports)”, attachment to territory and investment in local life (also in relation to the noise of aircraft)”. Added to this approach which is linked to annoyance is the listening approach which also deals with the problems linked to noise but aims especially to explore the positive aspects of the sonic environment.

(1) “Listen to noise and make annoyance heard”, in Communications. Noises in the town (dir. A. Pecqueux), n°90, pp. 95 – 107, 2012.

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