dB, or a Brief History of Noise

Recently a Swedish journalist came to Ljubljana to interview me and I took him to lunch in a Ljubljana restaurant. After a few minutes we realized that our interview would come to nothing unless we started shouting at each other as if we were standing on two opposite hills or banks of a wide river, for the music blasting from the speakers was so loud it was impossible to order our food, let alone conduct an interview.

So I politely asked the waiter (i.e. I shouted at him) if he could be so kind as to slightly turn down the music in his establishment. The waiter politely shouted back that some guests actually wanted to listen to the music and would take offence if it were turned off. I roared back politely that it was our right – actually, I meant to say it was not necessary to turn it off, just turn it down a bit, so that we could have a conversation. But hearing the word right put the waiter in a bad mood and he retorted very loudly and equally adamantly that they, meaning the guests – and presumably, he too – had the right to listen to music.


This caught me by surprise. The world’’s fundamental state is silence not noise: surely it is he who wishes to listen to loud music that has to seek permission and understanding, not the one who wants to eat his lunch in peace and quiet. However, we did not go on discussing the issue of noise and silence over that lunch as we came to an agreement with the waiter that he would, after all, turn the music down just a little, but not so much that other guests might be bothered by the silence.

It is not always possible to reach a compromise like the one we managed to reach in the restaurant. I remember that, as a young man travelling to Ljubljana on the morning train, I found these journeys an infernal torment because the engine driver was a fan of Dalmatian music and so each Monday morning, as I got on the train in Maribor at six o’’ clock, started as follows: We’’re partying tonight, we’’ll drink wine all night and sing merry songs, for we’’re merry Dalmatians. After all these years I still remember the lyrics I was forced to learn by heart on that train.

I tried to persuade the conductor to turn the music down a little bit or, at least, change the repertoire somewhat. But it was to no avail. I wrote a letter to the management of the railways and when I received no reply I phoned them. I was told the management had no influence over the choice of music played on trains. I bought earplugs but they did not make much difference.

Ever since then I know that it is impossible to win the war against loud music and its advocates. In fact, I know only one example from the history of the battle for silence that was crowned with success. Years ago a friend and I went for a drink and the barman immediately turned the amplifiers to full blast. My friend went up to him, and after they exchanged a few words the horrendous music stopped as if by a miracle. Astonished, I congratulated my friend on this tremendous success and asked how he managed it. A trifle, he said: I paid. What do you mean – paid? Well, giving the barman some money bought us silence.

The war against noisy music cannot be won even if the authorities join in from time to time. I have seen signs in New York taxis informing passengers of their right to travel in a music-free environment and obliging the driver to turn off the radio at their request. Areas adjacent to fountains in the Swiss city of Solothurn are designated as places where only the sound of water is allowed.

But who will persuade the owners of shopping centres, whose enormous spaces are filled with loud pop music; who will persuade coach conductors who love to play loud folk music; or the young man who lives on an estate and whose techno music makes the glasses shake on his neighbours’’ tables? This war was lost the minute the first speaker was invented, able to carry the human voice and amplify it a thousandfold.

I blame Alexander Graham Bell and Ernest Siemens. Both of them, each in his respective corner of the world, created this object, and all that numerous other scientists and inventors did in the 20th century was just perfect their invention, starting with the phonograph, tonophone, or whatever the various noise-making machines were called, right to the present-day stereo and hi-fi systems and all sorts of speakers which, at the push of a button, can cause a minor earthquake. Precisely – Earthquake was the name of one of the first sound systems that is in use even today. Extending their natural range, the human voice and the sounds of musical instruments have achieved the effect of a rumbling earthquake.


Although I have long given up, I could not get over the shocking words of the Ljubljana restaurant waiter who enlightened the Swedish journalist and me on the right to listen to loud music. Although today it’’s become an undeniable fact we have to accept, I wonder what constitutes the quintessential, original right – silence or noise?

In the beginning was silence. Well, first there was the big explosion known as the big bang but after that silence ruled for millions of years, disturbed only by the hum of oceans and rivers, the soughing of the breeze in the trees, the clap of thunder and the roar of the waves dashing against the seashore. And even when homo erectus emerged, thumping tree trunks with his clubs to chase away animals wilder than himself, the natural order of things was not too disturbed.

Only much later did the shouting crowds besieging Troy come, the tribunes at the Roman Forum, who had to rely on the force of their vocal cords to convince the plebs of the advantages of the republic, the sound of swords hitting shields and the noise of hammers as smiths forged the swords.

The noisiest event from the distant past was the destruction of the walls of Jericho by the sound of trumpets – although, to be honest, there is no firm evidence to back that up. The military museum in Istanbul displays a big drum, I forget its name, that was used by the Janissaries to instil fear in the hearts of the inhabitants of besieged Vienna; apparently neither before nor later had there been a more horrendous din than the rhythmical pounding of the Turkish drum – it made the blood of poor Christians curdle in their veins. Then came homo faber and built factories, filling them with steam machines, big furnaces, hammers, anvils and looms.

Yet all this industrial noise, until then alien to nature and humanity, was concentrated and affected only a few places in the world, while the majority of the Earth’’s inhabitants continued to waken to birdsong and go to sleep to the sound of church bells, muezzins’’ chants or shamans’’ murmurings. Even when those intent on changing the world wanted to rouse the masses they had to rely – in addition to the force of their arguments- primarily on the power of their voice. Even for Lenin (remember the famous painting where he’’s depicted leaning over the tribune shouting resolute words above people’’s heads) things were not much better than for the Roman tribunes. However, his heirs no longer had to roar at the crowds, they had microphones to speak into, which made their words echo in every nook and cranny of vast public spaces.

We all know what happened after that. Speakers and amplifiers soon served not only the purpose of communicating information but were used for organized entertainment until they became the very air we breathe.


Some people cannot survive without a certain number of dB (decibels) in their heads but there are also others, transformed by the addiction of the former into passionate silence seekers. We know silence because we know noise. We love it because we hate noise.

The lovers of silence, of whom I consider myself to be one, believe that silence not only makes possible contemplation and rest but also that it is the most natural and pristine state of things. Lovers of noise, on the other hand, only know silence as something that makes them feel empty and deprived of confidence, which makes them hate silence as intensely as the lovers of silence hate loud music.

For its admirers loud music is their most cherished possession, enabling them to function. That is why we cannot deny them the right to listen to it; the waiter was right there. The only question is how to make them keep to themselves their predilection for the appalling noise which, for some mysterious reason, they insist on calling music.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This essay, from the collection Jakobova lestev (Jakob’’s Ladder) Ljubljana 2009, appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza on 1. January 2010.