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Saturday, May 2, 2015


As I was lying in bed early one spring morning after taking care of my dogs, I realized how quiet it is at my house. That quiet is one of the reasons I bought this house. It's on 1/2 acre, so I have no immediate neighbors, and the lot to the east is still undeveloped. There are no sidewalks, and the roads are not paved. One of the things I disliked about my house in California was all the surrounding noise. It wasn't far from a busy expressway, the houses are jammed together, and my house was near a busy park that was home to never-ending Little League baseball games nine months of the year. So when I moved to New Mexico, I looked for a house with lots of peace and quiet.

I started to think about sound. My world is never completely quiet, as I have suffered from tinnitus (ringing in the ears) for as long as I can remember. And my hearing isn't normal, either, as an inner ear infection when I was 10 years old took about 2/3 of the hearing in my left ear. The hearing in my other ear, however, is better than normal.

But I digress. I think of myself as more of a visual than auditory person, given my passion for photography and writing. But there are certain sounds that are wonderful to listen to, and others that drive me up a wall.

Sounds I enjoy include
  • a tennis ball hitting a racquet's sweet spot
  • a whale exhaling as it breaks the water's surface
  • wolf howls
  • coyote songs
  • the chug-chug of a train 
  • the sound of a train whistle in the distance
  • running water in a stream or river
  • saxophone music
  • boots crunching on crisp snow  
  • rain on the roof
  • the propane burner of a hot air balloon
  • the afterburners of a high-performance jet
  • birds chirping
 I used to live just a couple of blocks from a railroad track, and I always enjoyed hearing the trains going by late at night, whistle blowing. And years ago the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., had a huge locomotive on display. Every so often a recording of the train chugging alone and blowing its whistle would play.
Sounds I really don't like
  • crying babies
  • the shrill voices of little kids
  • traffic noise
  • fax machines
  • honking horns
  • loud motorcycles 
  • loud people
  • the generic noise of a crowd of people
  • howling winds

Some people go crazy when they hear the squeaking of Styrofoam. That sound doesn't bother me much. But a crying or worse, screaming, baby quickly sends me to the breaking point.

What became obvious as I wrote this list is that the most annoying sounds are predominantly not natural, while the sounds I like are mostly the sounds of nature. But these days, the sounds of nature are too often drowned out by the artificial noise that has taken over our world: blaring televisions, booming music, obnoxious commercials, traffic, crowds, hovering helicopters, honking horns. Some people feel a need to have the television on whether they are watching it or not, just for the noise. I am not one of those people.

Music is another sound that I greatly enjoy, but it has to be my kind of music.  I like classic rock, classical music, easy listening, smooth jazz and I can listen to country music, although I don't care for the super twangy stuff. I cannot stand rap, however. Good music can be relaxing and distracting, and it can be a real mood booster. Who doesn't enjoy driving down the highway with the stereo turned up, grooving to our favorite tunes?

I do know that the wrong kinds of sounds can affect my mood. When I lived in Moscow (a bustling city of more than 11 million people with very impatient drivers and terrible traffic), the cacophony of traffic -- squealing brakes, honking horns, revving engines -- could turn a good mood into a bad one very quickly. It was difficult to relax and to sleep with the constant noise. But the sounds of nature are very relaxing and calming. Walking or hiking in the forest or on a beach is a wonderful way to let go.

I appreciate knowing which sounds are irritating and which are soothing, so I can minimize exposure to the former and maximize exposure to the latter. So think about how sounds impact you, then make a point of surrounding yourself with your favorite sounds.