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How does sound become noise?

How does sound become noise?

People who “own” a noisy process or activity are often surprised when neighbors object strenuously.  This article seeks to explain the disconnect, based on my own experience with these situations.  

It starts as sound…

The “noise makers” are

  • familiar with the sound,
  • understand what it represents,
  • approve of its purpose, and
  • consider that the positives outweigh any negatives they themselves might experience. 

To them it’s the sound of making money, providing jobs, quality entertainment, having fun with friends, etc.   They may comfort themselves with apples-to-oranges dB comparisons or whoppers like “no one is going deaf so it can’t be a problem”.  Within their positive context bubble, it’s hard to imagine how there could be a problem.

then it becomes noise…  

Once the sound clears the fence however, the positive context evaporates.  The sound can become noise (unwanted sound). 

If a sound is new to the area, neighbors may not know

  • what it is,
  • whether it is going to get better or worse over time, or
  • whether it represents a malfunction or dangerous condition. 

They may be upset if they were not consulted or warned.  If it’s audible in the home, it may affect sleep and/or intrude on conversations, TV watching, or other activities.  Being awakened unnecessarily carries obvious negative health consequences in its own right.  Additionally, hearing the noise (day or night) may trigger emotional stress related to

  • how the situation is being handled,
  • concerns about property values, and
  • feeling your privacy invaded. 

If the noise makers are profiting financially while appearing to disregard the concerns of neighbors, even more vigorous opposition is to be expected.

Facing reality

Sound is a medium of communication.  Any sound audible to another person conveys a message, intended or otherwise.  The sound may even come to represent the entire history of interactions regarding the problem and then serve as a emotional trigger.

Avoiding such collisions requires telling oneself the truth in advance: that “my sound” could easily become “someone else’s noise”, and conceding the validity of their opinions about it.

It may seem hard or expensive to address these issues beforehand. But it’s far harder and more expensive to do so after complaints have begun.  Besides the cost of disassembly and re-design, an additional 5 – 10 dB of noise reduction is typically required to achieve the same degree of satisfaction.  Worse yet, each additional dB of noise control costs more than the last.   Addressing these issues in advance is the least expensive, least painful way to go.  It’s simple due diligence.

Nelson Acoustics can help identify problems before they happen, recommend noise control methods to reduce the impact on neighbors, and suggest constructive modes of communication.


Copyright 2020 Nelson Acoustics

Previous entries in the series “Myths, Misunderstandings, and Magical Thinking about Noise”:

1. Noise Control is not Magic

2. Decibel Abuse

3. Careful with that dB Thermometer

4. The Forbidden Word – Soundproof

5. HOW much quieter?

6. “Wait-and-See” Noise Control: Why Bet the Farm?

7. Active Noise Cancellation in the 21st Century

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