There are many songs dedicated to the topic of silence, like Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”, The Tremeloes’ “Silence is Golden” and “Silence” by Marshmello ft. Khalid, to name a few. But isn’t it kind of ironic that these songs about silence actually produce sound in order to make up a song? In a modern world, what is the true definition of silence?
According to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “quiet” is nearly extinct – 97% of the American population is exposed to noise from aviation and highways. And with 4.4 billion air transport passengers as of 2019, it can be said that more than half of the world’s population has experienced some sort of noise pollution while flying.
This is even more apparent for people in urban areas, who can easily tell the difference between a police and ambulance siren, but most likely cannot recognise the song of a nightingale.
Too much sound in your daily life can be detrimental to health – experts have repeatedly cautioned against the effects of excessive noise exposure, which can lead to reduced quality of wellbeing and mental health, annoyance, hypertension, hearing impairment, sleep disturbance and cardiovascular disease.
Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton a.k.a The Sound Tracker has spent his entire career recording steadily vanishing natural soundscapes. For more than 37 years, he has circled the globe multiple times in pursuit of Earth’s rarest sounds, to find places where the experience of quiet can be preserved for the future generation to appreciate.
In an interview with On Being, Hempton said, “Not too long ago, it was assumed that clean water’s not important, that seeing the stars is not that important. But now it is. And now I think we’re realizing that quiet is important, and we need silence – that silence is not a luxury, but it’s essential.”
Judging by how silence has become so scarce, Quiet Parks International (QPI) was founded to save quiet for the benefit of all life. Together with Vikram Chauhan, Hempton set up this non-profit organization to protect the sounds of nature, which can only be fully appreciated in the absence of man-made noise.
For Hempton, silence is not the absence of sound: “When I speak of silence, I often use it synonymously with quiet.
I mean silence from modern life, silence from all these sounds that have nothing to do with the natural acoustic system, which is busy communicating. True silence does not exist, not on planet Earth with an atmosphere and oceans.” Simply put, it’s an immersive form of silence, surrounded by the magnificent beauty of nature.
Credit: Yangmingshan National Park
QPI aims to establish a network of certified-quiet places around the world, which includes wilderness parks, urban parks, trails, marine parks, residences, communities and even hotels.
To qualify as a “quiet place”, each wilderness park must meet a set of stringent standards, which includes having a noise-free interval (the time between man-made noise events) of at least 15 minutes.
In 2019, QPI declared Zabalo River in Ecuador the world’s first wilderness quiet park. Located deep within the Amazon jungle, Zabalo River has a healthy balance of bioacoustics and an average noise-free interval of several hours.
This recognition helps the area’s indigenous Cofan Nation defend their lands, creating a niche for eco-tourism, encouraging travelers and visitors to come for a fully-immersive quiet experience.
“For a long time, silence has been golden, but now, we are turning it into gold. This is a real economic opportunity for countries that also embrace sustainable environmental and public health development,” explained Chauhan.
Last year, in conjunction with World Environment Day, QPI and the Taiwanese government awarded the world’s first urban quiet park to Yangmingshan National Park.
To obtain this certification, the overall volume at a particular urban park must be below 45dB (equivalent to the sound level in a library), with no more than eight short noise disturbances per hour, each of which must not exceed 65db (equivalent to an indoor conversation at a restaurant).
On a good day, Yangmingshan can be as quiet as 30dB. This allows the natural soundscapes to flourish in its element, as can be heard below through this “symphony of frogs”, recorded on Soundcloud by Taiwanese environmental journalist Laila Fan:
In the next 10 years, QPI aims to certify at least another 50 urban quiet parks in cities around the world, including Stockholm, New York, London, Villach and Caen. That being said, does it mean that less sound, the better?
Inside Microsoft’s Building 87 at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington is the Anechoic Chamber, dubbed as “the world’s quietest room, where sound goes to die”. Here, the noise level is at a mere -20dB (for context, calm breathing is 10dB). The chamber sits in the middle of six concrete layers, each with walls up to 12 inches thick, taking more than a year and a half to build.
According to one of the engineers working there, “When you stop breathing, you can hear your heart beating and the blood flowing in your veins. It’s a very unique experience.”
Most visitors also find the experience rather uncomfortable. The silence becomes deafening – being able to hear people breathing on the other side of the room and hear their stomachs gurgling is unsettling, and some feel dizzy within a few seconds.
But still, there are some who love the meditative effect of the Anechoic Chamber and find it relaxing. Sometimes, it’s not the presence of sound that makes an impact, but the lack thereof. Either way, the healing power of silence is something that we can and should continue to appreciate.