Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Our quietest surroundings are brimming with sound. The modern world is cluttered with humming freeways, droning light bulbs, vibrating appliances, buzzing electrical wires, and countless other incessant noises. These acoustic waves are so constant that we tend to block them out. But if we listen closely in a quiet bedroom or library, there they are (around 30 decibels worth). Likewise, remote habitats free of humanity’s sonic stamp—which are few and far between—are home to a variety of natural sounds. Absolute silence is simply not a feature of our planet.
The foreignness of pure quiet is on full display at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, a location certified by Guinness as the world’s quietest place. The lab’s anechoic (echo-free) chamber absorbs 99.9 percent of sound, with its mesh flooring, double-walls of concrete and steel, and lining of fiberglass acoustic wedges. Manufacturers use the chamber to gauge the volume of switches, triggers and other components of their products.
Founder Steven Orfield challenges visitors to sit in the chamber with the lights off for as long as they can. Most give up before twenty minutes; no one has lasted longer than forty-five. Orfield himself struggles to endure beyond the half-hour mark. The reason for this is that the brain, so used to filtering out environmental sounds, turns inward. It starts picking up the pumping heart, pulsating lungs, digestive gurgles, and creaking joints. The effect is so disorienting that participants invariably tap out. Absolute silence disturbs absolutely.
The anechoic chamber proves that there is no escaping sound. Even when auditory stimuli are sucked from our surroundings, we have the hubbub within. Thus, the ordinary quiet we long for is not dead silence, but relative silence. It is the absence of grating, high-decibel, out-of-place and otherwise unwelcomed noises. Relative silence is highly coveted in part because it is rare: not only is the atmosphere filled with subtle rumblings, it is also host to noticeable sonic intrusions.
One way to create a gratifying impression of silence is by contrasting attention-grabbing sounds with sudden stillness. This is best accomplished with music. Minimally defined, music is the art of arranging sound and silence—that is, tones and spaces between tones. Of course, the juxtaposition of structured sound and calculated quiet is more pronounced in some pieces than others, as the tempo and spirit of the music allows for longer or shorter rests.
However, in almost all cases there is room to prolong the moment immediately following the music, thereby creating the perception of silence. Such potent pauses occur whenever audiences hold their applause after a piece concludes, and in ceremonial settings when there are breaks between song and spoken word. Whether the music ceases abruptly or gradually fades into nothingness, it sets the stage for a pleasing audible quiet rarely discerned in our day-to-day lives.
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