Acoustician’s POV: Dining With Loudness

Do you want ear-splitting noise and migraines with that order?


“I SAID, Mayor Di Blasio ought to pick up the gauntlet on sound abuse in restaurants the same way Bloomberg did with his smoking ban.”

I was dining in a trendy lower-Manhattan restaurant recently, trying to discuss a New York Times article about the “Unabated Roar” New Yorkers face at many clubs and eateries. Unfortunately, the surrounding din rendered my logic moot as well as mute.

Loudness issues have been a sore point with me for years, and not only in restaurants. Not long ago, Congress passed the CALM Act, which (supposedly) prohibits commercial advertisers from raising the volume on their messages beyond the level set by viewers for their personal listening comfort. Hard to imagine, broadcasters intentionally flouting the law, but I know I continue to encounter CALM infractions in my channel-surfing expeditions.
Although many people complained bitterly about the restaurant smoking ban, non-smokers supported it vigorously. Although restaurant and club owners expressed deep concern about the negative income impact they anticipated when customers were unable to light up after a meal or during a beer, none of those fears were realized. And look at all the money they’re saving on matchbooks.

Hirslanden  Heart Clinic Zurich doctor’s office
Hirslanden: Heart Clinic Zurich doctor’s office

That New York Times article I recalled cited research that shows people drink more and chew faster when music and ambient sound is loud. Clearly, both those results benefit venue owners. However, medical research proves unequivocally that excessively noisy environments cause hearing loss. And, hearing loss cannot be repaired. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

The (literally) deafening restaurant blare grows louder and louder as people increase their volume to make themselves heard over the continually amplifying clamor. It’s a classic lose/lose situation. However, this problem can be controlled easily and cost-effectively by applying appropriate acoustical treatments to walls, ceilings and even booth seating.

Imagine people talking to their heart’s content at dinner without having to outshout each other over their pasta. That’s a pretty appetizing culinary concept.

Hirslanden Heart Clinic Zurich corner hallway
Hirslanden Heart Clinic Zurich corner hallway

I’m particularly sensitive to noise issues because hearing is the focal point of my livelihood as an architect and acoustician. Many highly effective “fixes” are available to dampen and actually eliminate excessive ambient noise today. And, implementing them does not need to break restaurant and club owner budgets.

For example, thanks to psychoacoustics-inspired Residual Pitch technology, club owners can now delude their customers’ brains into perceiving the pitch of a tone by the ratio of its higher harmonics. They can make music “seem” louder without actually raising the volume to painful, damaging or neighbor-annoying levels. Hey, you duck when a 3D image jumps off the screen at a Spider-Man movie.

A business associate of mine says, “Architects should design with their ears as well as their eyes.” I propose that mayors across the country introduce a compulsory ban on excessive noise in clubs and restaurants. The resulting fines and penalties should appeal to their cities as a windfall benefit of this legitimate quality of life enforcement issue.

Hearing may be the only one of our five senses people take for granted, until their hearing is diminished. By educating or legislating restaurant and club owners to the importance of noise control, local governments may inspire an international fix to an insidious and vociferous problem. Then, maybe we can figure out a way to “tone down” those ear piercing fire, police and ambulance sirens.

Here are links related to this content: choacoustics tics2008/acoustics2008/cd1/data/fa2005-budapest/paper/254-0.pdf

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