In one of my musical incarnations I am a rock musician, and I play guitar at high volume. In 1966, when I was in ninth grade, I would stand directly in front of bands to immerse myself in the sound, seeking an ecstatic loss of self in an auditory universe. And yet when I moved to Boston's Chinatown in 1984, the traffic outside my loft kept me up for a number of nights until I adapted to it, my subconscious finally realizing it was not a threat.
One person's sonic heaven is the next person's purgatory. When is sound enjoyable? When is it an irritation? When is it actually dangerous? These are some of the themes of Mike Goldsmith's "Discord: The Story of Noise," an enjoyable history of "sound out of place." Mr. Goldsmith, a longtime researcher in acoustics, covers the scientific history of noise—especially how to measure and contain it—as well as its cultural aspects.
By Mike Goldsmith
Oxford, 317 pages, $29.95
Shouting Won't Help
By Katherine Bouton
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 276 pages, $26
He playfully begins with the Big Bang. Despite the name, it was silent, there being nothing around it to transmit the sound. The plot thickens as first humans, then tools and cities arrive. The sparse anecdotes Mr. Goldsmith offers from ancient times suggest that noise was a problem even in early cultures. In the story of Gilgamesh, written 4,000 years ago, the gods complain about the "intolerable" sound made by the residents of the city of Shurrupak, and already in the fifth century B.C. Hippocrates was describing the symptoms of tinnitus.
Focused on human-generated sounds impinging on other humans, "Discord" becomes essentially an audio history of civilization. Horse-drawn carts with their creaky wheels, marketplace hawkers bellowing their wares and the roar of jet planes each have their specific place and time in the human order. Most of this pollution is accidental, but sound has long been intentionally used as a weapon: Bloodcurdling war cries and clashing swords were designed to strike terror in the enemy; in World War II, German planes carried a siren known as the "Jericho Trumpet." Even today, sheer volume signifies power: Witness radios blasting in cars, muffler-deprived motorcycles and rock albums with the advice "Play LOUD!" on the sleeve. In the 1970s, special metal gloves were invented to increase the sound of applause. Mercifully, they did not catch on.
The book settles into an easy flow in the late medieval era; the advent of the printing press leaves more data to assess, though there was as yet no way to measure or describe sound objectively. In the mid-1700s, London's size and population density made it "probably the world's noisiest city." Caterwauling organ-grinders were sometimes paid to play under a specific individual's window through all hours of the night. In the morning, "country carts and noisy rustics bellowing 'green pease' " threatened sleep, as one Tobias Smollett character quoted by Mr. Goldsmith complains.
Once the Industrial Revolution got under way, the aural environment ramped up further. Factories sprang up anywhere. The hiss and clank of steam engines filled the air. Loud sounds, Mr. Goldsmith observes, had once been rare, natural and ominous, like thunder and earthquakes. Now there was a constant drone. As people began to react to these new brash sonic assaults, zoning was the primary solution: Put all the factories in one place and keep living spaces free of noise. Suburbs, here we come—except that, as Mr. Goldsmith notes, separating home and work required noisy transit to bring people to their jobs and back.
The measurement of noise became more scientific by the 1920s, when the decibel scale was introduced. Readings of sound levels could be taken and compared, giving ammunition to people fed up with noise who petitioned governments to take action. Victories won by campaigners like the U.K.'s Noise Abatement Society were sometimes big—banning night flights at Heathrow Airport—and sometimes seemingly small: In the 1960s, the British changed from metal-lidded to rubber-lidded trash cans, and from metal to plastic milk crates. The sonic environment was improved considerably. It may seem quaint now, but complaints about early-morning milk deliveries had been rampant.
Nevertheless, the extremely subjective individual perception of sounds often results in halfhearted government response. "Discord" is a story of constant give-and-take, pitting irritated anti-noise groups against general enthusiasm for the modern world, sounds included, and confused reactions from the authorities. It will probably keep getting worse. In the 21st century, newly minted noises include the flap of wind turbines and cellphone ring tones. Technology marches on!
The effects of this crescendo are everywhere. In "Shouting Won't Help: Why I—and 50 Million Other Americans—Can't Hear You," Katherine Bouton reports that 17% of Americans have some hearing loss. (I myself acquired tinnitus from playing highly amplified music, though I've generally been able to adapt to the constant ringing in my ears.) She means her title literally, hoping to dispel the myth that shouting at a hearing-impaired person will help him hear you better. It only makes matters worse, producing an impenetrable wall of distortion.
"Shouting Won't Help" is part journalistic exposition and part memoir. One morning in 1978, when she was 30, Ms. Bouton found that her left ear didn't work. The problem cleared up in a few weeks, but only temporarily. Her hearing began to slowly fade. After one decade her hearing was causing trouble at work; after three, she was deaf. Ms. Bouton was an editor at the New York Times, and when meetings became impossible for her to attend—she would nod knowingly but have no idea what was said—she was forced to face the issue. She recounts her progress from denial to seeking help but trying to hide it (she compares the stigma of hearing loss to that of her infertility) and finally to acceptance.
Though the chapters unfold chronologically, each one presents a different aspect of hearing loss, including its causes. Roughly 70% of cases, including hers, derive from an underlying genetic defect, though it often takes an infection or other trigger to cause actual hearing loss. (She still doesn't know what brought hers on.) She also blames the noisy modern environment, noting that some toys aimed at young children whose hearing is still forming can reach 129 decibels—louder than the subway.
Other chapters describe treatments, including speech therapy, hearing aids and cochlear implants. Ms. Bouton deploys lots of facts and statistics but keeps things lively by giving names and personalities to all the doctors and people she interacts with, warts and all. She intersperses throughout interviews with various fellow-sufferers, including an opera singer, a chef and a psychoanalyst.
She presents the experience of hearing loss eloquently, though her distress—she uses a hearing aid and cochlear implant but still has to "work to hear"—can feel relentless. But her book depicts a problem that most people not only don't understand but probably are not even aware of. Hearing loss is an "invisible disability," Ms. Bouton laments, adding: "Sometimes I wish I could wear a sign on my back saying, 'I'm deaf.' "
The last chapter proves to be the most optimistic: Science is making radical progress, and the latest advancements are laid out clearly. Most promising is the creation of new hair cells—the cells deep inside the ear that register vibrations and convert them into nerve signals—from, in some cases, modified skin cells. Chickens can repair their hair cells; why can't we? Results may not be available for 15 to 50 years, but given that currently there is not much hope for curing hearing loss, this is great news.—Mr. Miller plays in the bands Mission of Burma and Alloy Orchestra.
A version of this article appeared February 16, 2013, on page C5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: When the Noise Becomes Too Much.