November 1, 2011
I had just settled down with my ice cream cone in front of Ralph’s Pretty Good Café when a garbage truck rumbled to a stop directly in front of me. To my consternation, the driver got out with the motor still running and noisily began to empty garbage cans into the truck. No, I said to myself as I sat there: Neither noise nor fumes nor icky smells will keep me from the pursuit of this ice cream (chocolate, two scoops). But as I licked away and absentmindedly watched the man at work, I noticed that his T-shirt had something written on it.
I’m often intrigued by people’s desire to have themselves serve as living billboards for places they’ve visited, personal philosophy, or downright silliness. Some writing is pointed: “Continue drinking until the economy improves”. Some merely goofy: “Up to now this is the oldest I’ve ever been”. So what exactly did the sanitation worker’s T-shirt say? For a split second, one odoriferous can remained still enough in his hands for me to read the words: “If the music is too loud, you’re too old”.
I stopped licking. Why, that T-shirt could be talking about me. I hate loud music. I’m quite old. Worse still, the T-shirt proclaimed that I was too old, or at least too old to enjoy loud music. But what’s so desirable about loud music? My friend, Jill, once complained to the manager of a trendy New York restaurant that she was unable to converse with her companion over lunch because of the blaring music and general noise ricocheting off the tiled walls. He told Jill that she had no idea about the restaurant business. Then he let her in on a secret. Young people are attracted to places with ear splitting music because they feel that’s where the action is.
Should I worry about these young people? After all, eating in restaurants with loud music can lead to drinking in bars with loud music and that, as we all know, can ultimately lead to the mother of loud things: rock concerts. I’ve only been to a rock concert once in my life. My son, Alexej, invited me to hear Radiohead and several other groups perform in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. I paid $115 to join 60,000 other people in this sold out event, proving the lie to the idea that young people don’t go to classical music concerts because tickets are too expensive. (Why weren’t there 60,000 people at our last Guarneri String Quartet concert?)
Frankly, I prefer Mozart’s Requiem or Schubert’s A Major opus posthumous Piano Sonata to Radiohead’s music, but no matter. Thom Yorke, the lead singer, crooned appealingly with his distinctive tenor voice and the band had personality to burn, but the decibel level overwhelmed me. Even with the earplugs that Alexej had thoughtfully provided, Radiohead’s amplified sound coming out of huge speaker banks stationed at regular intervals throughout the park was painfully loud. Was I too old for this? Maybe. Was I by far the oldest person at that moment in Golden Gate Park? Definitely. The throngs of young people standing tightly packed all around me weaved back and forth and mouthed the words to Radiohead’s songs for the entire night. They clearly loved the music. Between numbers, I overheard snippets of conversation comparing the merits of “The Bends”, “OK Computer”, and other of the group’s albums. This audience would probably go to many rock concerts throughout their lives.
Sound intensity is measured as sound pressure level (SPL) in a logarithmic decibal (dB) scale and noise can cause permanent damage hearing loss at chronic exposures equal to an average SPL of 85 dB or higher for an eight-hour period. A few dB examples:
Gunshot: 140 to 170 dB
Jet takeoff: 140 dB
Rock concert: 110 to 120 dB
Stereo headphones: 100 dB
Lawnmower: 90 dB
Our hearing is threatened at work, at play, at rock concerts, and even at the symphony orchestra. Orchestral brass players and those musicians sitting directly in front of them must be exposed to dBs not much below those during a jet’s takeoff. Come to think of it, who knows whether the clang of cans and the garbage truck motor’s constant drone didn’t put that driver with the T-shirt at hearing risk. Even I, playing this little thing called a violin all my life, may have suffered some hearing loss from the surprisingly loud and piercing sound that rushes day after day only inches past my ears.
I finished my ice cream cone just as the garbage truck noisily drove off. I’m comfortable with the driver’s “If the music is too loud, you’re too old” message. That’s me. But what about younger generations who willingly, even blissfully expose themselves to high decibel danger? Let’s hope that they won’t be sporting T-shirts in their old age with this sad message: “Rock concert fan. Can’t hear you!”; or with just a single word: “What?”
Sign up to receive new stories straight to your inbox!