SILENCE is not just golden. It is a commodity they don’t make any more. Noise has become inescapable.
Climb the highest mountain and you will be buzzed by lowflying aircraft, find the loneliest beach and sound systems or speedboats will shatter the calm, plunge into Alpine wilderness and snowmobile hooligans will assault your solitude.
Spain is the perfect place to study noise because it has so much of it. In fact, the Spanish press frequently reminds readers – with a touch of pride? – that after Japan this is the world’s noisiest country.
High-decibel noise seems to be an integral part of Spanish life. Indeed, anybody frequenting the average bar is a candidate for an ear-drum transplant. Television, stereo, radio, and coffee-grinder will quite likely all be operating at the same time, accompanied by the constant jangle of coin machine jingles.
Hubbub is equated with fun, especially in discos. Studies suggest that loud music encourages people to drink more, but many of the youngsters regularly submitting themselves to this acoustic torture do not appreciate the long-term consequences. More than 30 per cent of disco-goers among Valencia University students were found to have diminished hearing capacity.
In theory, 65 decibels of daytime sound are acceptable or at least endurable, while at night you should snatch some sleep if the level is below 45. But disco music soars to far above 100 decibels and an aircraft taking off registers more than 130, enough to rattle window-panes and give heart attacks to unsuspecting cows.
Oddly enough though, in whichever country you are, complaining about noise somehow categorises you as a killjoy. Noise has come to be associated with vitality and youth, quietness with boredom and old age. But the clamour does reach special levels in Mediterranean countries, for distinct cultural and climatic reasons.
A good deal of social life occurs in public rather than in the privacy of the home. After 6pm the streets of Northern Europe often have a funereal atmosphere. Not so those in Mediterranean climes.
It has been that way from early times. Nearly 2,000 years ago the satiric poet Juvenal complained that it was impossible to sleep in Rome. “Carts passing through the alleys and the swearing of muleteers stuck in traffic jams would keep awake even the Emperor Claudius,” he spluttered.