If you don’t like a sound, listen closely! For most people suffering from misophonia, that might come as a paradoxical advice. There are, however, good reasons to do so.
Those cursed with misophonia already know many facets of a sound that triggers their rage. Most of them probably would not consider these sounds to be worth of examining in detail. To be at least aware of the thoughts behind this idea might change one’s perception of a situation when being triggered.
Composer John Cage suggested to perceive all sounds in a musical way, as something that evolves and relates to the surrounding sounds. In 1952, he applied this insight in his piece 4’33”, for which he had a pianist simply sitting in front of his instrument in a concert hall for four minutes and 33 seconds – doing nothing.
The actual concert is involuntarily created by the audience and consists of their breathing and coughing – their sounds of being irritated. On the one hand, the piece investigates what’s happening in the border area of silence, but it also reveals something about an audience and its expectations in such a situation.
Examining a situation is also at the core of a concept introduced in the late Sixties by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. He realized that in natural surroundings many different sounds – close or far away – are playing together, generating a soundscape. Such soundscapes may also be perceived in a musical way – as if a large orchestra is at work.
Putting sounds into a perspective releases persons with misophonia from being passive sufferers when triggered.
The following text passages from R. Murray Schafer’s book The Soundscape – Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World convey an idea about subtle differences one might discover within a sound, the idea of soundscapes in general, and what else sounds may communicate besides just being in the air.
Regarding sounds as parts of a larger context and to be able to put them into a perspective certainly helps me a lot to understand the nature of a situation when my misophonia is triggered. After all, this strategy releases a person with misophonia from being a passive sufferer when triggered, but rather puts one into an active position, in charge of observing what is going on.
The more relaxed one manages to stay during attacks, the more deeply one may investigate the exact nature of a trigger, why it is so painful, what exactly makes it painful, and what memories get activated by a trigger sound. Over time, some triggers lost intensity for me.
The upcoming three excerpts are from R. Murray Schafer’s book The Soundscape, first published in 1977.
The mosquito, the fly and the wasp are easily distinguishable. The attentive listener can even tell the difference between male and female mosquitoes, the male usually sounding at a higher pitch. But only a specialist, such as a beekeeper, knows how to distinguish all the variants of the bee sound. Leo Tolstoy kept bees on his estate, and their sound is described in both Anna Karenina and War and Peace. “His ears were filled with the incessant hum in various notes, now the busy hum of the working bee flying quickly off, then the blaring of the lazy drone, and the excited buzz of the bees on guard protecting their property from the enemy and preparing to sting.”
When a queenless hive is dying, the beekeeper knows this too from the sound. The flight of the bees is not as in living hives, the smell and the sound that meet the beekeeper are changed. When the beekeeper strikes the wall of the sick hive, instead of the instant, unanimous response, the buzzing of tens of thousands of bees menacingly arching their backs, and by the rapid stroke of their wings making that whirring, living sound, he is greeted by a disconnected, droning hum from different parts of the deserted hive. (…) Around the entrance there is now no throng of guards, arching their backs and trumpeting the menace, ready to die in its defence. There is heard no more the low, even hum, the buzz of toil, like the singing of boiling water, but the broken, discordant uproar of disorder comes forth.
The Rural Soundscape
In discussing the transition from the rural to the urban soundscape, I will be using two terms: hi-fi and lo-fi. They need to be explained. A hi-fi system is one possessing a favorable signal-to-noise ratio. The hi-fi soundscape is one in which discrete sounds can be heard clearly because of the low ambient noise level. The country is generally more hi-fi than the city; night more than day; ancient times more than modern. In the hi-fi soundscape, sounds overlap less frequently; there is perspective – foreground and background: “… the sound of a pail on the lip of a well, and the crack of a whip in the distance” – the image is Alain-Fournier’s to describe the economic acoustics of the French countryside.
The quiet ambiance of the hi-fi soundscape allows the listener to hear farther into the distance just as the countryside exercises long-range viewing. The city abbreviates this facility for distant hearing (and seeing) marking one of the more important changes in the history of perception.
In a lo-fi soundscape individual acoustic signals are obscured in an overdense population of sounds. The pellucid sound – a footstep in the snow, a church bell across the valley or an animal scurrying in the brush – is masked by broad-band noise. Perspective is lost. On a downtown street corner of the modern city there is no distance; there is only presence. There is cross-talk on all the channels, and in order for the most ordinary sounds to be heard they have to be increasingly amplified.
In the quiet ambiance of the hi-fi soundscape even the slightest disturbance can communicate vital or interesting information: “He was disturbed in his meditation by a grating noise from the coachhouse. It was the vane on the roof turning round, and this change in the wind was the signal for a disastrous rain.”
From the nearest details to the most distant horizon, the ears operated with seismographic delicacy. When men lived mostly in isolation or in small communities, sounds were uncrowded, surrounded by pools of stillness, and the shepherd, the woodsman and the farmer knew how to read them as clues to changes in the environment.
The Big Sound Sewer of the Sky
It would be false to assume that man only became airborne in the twentieth century. In fact, man has always been airborne in his imagination, as the numerous magic carpets of folklore prove. The twentieth century has merely reduced the limitless spaces where the imagination soared to rare altitudes to specific air corridors of no intrinsic significance whatsoever. Listen to the sky. The whirring and scraping against the air is nothing but the wounds of a crippled imagination made audible. At one time it was only those unfortunate enough to live near airports who really suffered from aircraft noise. In those days a passing plane turned all heads upward. But since the Second World War all this has changed.
As every home and office is gradually being situated along the world runway, the aviation industry, perhaps more effectively than any other, is destroying the words “peace and quiet” in every world language. For noise in the sky is distinguished radically from all other forms of noise in that it is not localized or contained. The plangent voice of the airplane motor beams down directly on the whole community, on roof, garden and window, on farm and suburb as well as city center.
In our research on the Vancouver soundscape we showed that the annual traffic of aircraft over a downtown park in 1970 was 23,000 per year and that this had grown by 1973 to 38,700—a trend well in line with the quotation above. We also showed that in 1973 the same park soundscape was filled with aircraft noise, from the time each flight was detected on the acoustic horizon until it disappeared, for an average of 27 minutes per hour; and from our research we are able to predict that if the trend continues the noise will be total and uninterrupted by 1981.
A pdf of R. Murray Schafer’s book The Soundscape may get accessed at archive.org.