In One Ear, in the Other

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If everyone's life is a movie, every life may need a musical sound track: a heroic overall theme (like Lawrence of Arabia or Star Wars) and various mood pieces to accompany the separate moments — romance, sorrow, shopping. There might be a bright reveille on waking, a theme to shower by, music for orange juice and coffee, bustling big-city notes, perhaps (like those in 1950s New York office-girl sagas such as The Best of Everything), by which to go to work. Winning an important contract might call forth Chariots of Fire. The approach of one's personal Great White Shark would be announced by an ominous sawing of cellos.

It could be done. The technology exists. An aural implant, perhaps a pulse monitor so that the music would follow the body's beat...

On second thought, it is a revolting idea. But at least the permeating noise would be customized. As things stand now, the brain is assaulted by an indiscriminate aerosol of sound that comes out of a can and spreads like a virus. Canned music is a sort of Legionnaire's disease seeping through the world's hotels: a Lawrence Welkish synthetic, a dense cloud of inanimate noodling. It drifts from elevator to lobby, from lobby to dining room and coffee shop, thence even to the men's room, then jumps from hotel to hotel, from city to city, from country to country, until no corner of the earth is safe from this blight of the sprightly, a technique of musical leveling that can make any music — the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Mozart, 2 Live Crew, the Soviet anthem — sound like Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.

Enlil, the Mesopotamian god of the atmosphere, sent down a flood upon the world because of "the intolerable uproar of mankind." Unwanted noise for some reason provokes irrational fantasies of revenge: either submit to noise or annihilate the source. If Enlil were still in office, not a square centimeter of the earth would be dry. The only sound would be a gentle global lapping of waves.

Noise performs its function in nature: as a warning, for example, or a cry of pain, or as an aural accounting of reality (those are footsteps that you hear approaching, that is the surf, that is your boss). Noise by definition ought to be random, as life is random. If noise is programmed, deliberate, even institutionalized, it had better have a good reason. It had better be Bach.

Noise is often a form of stupidity and an invasion of the mind. Nature left the side gates to the brain (the ears) incautiously open. Any passing Visigothic mob of decibels can come swarming in, marauding, overturning thoughts, wrecking the civilization.

An infant's cry of distress is so pitched by nature that its urgency cannot be ignored. Thus life is served, the baby is fed. But certain other noises that cannot be ignored (the whooping car alarm, the political campaign) lead to madness, homHome Aloneicide or, in most of us, an exhausted disgust. The poor battered ear grows accustomed to the occupying armies.

If noise assaulted a different sense, say, the sense of smell, then people would race from the room at the smell of jackhammers, boom boxes and certain long stretches of Wagner. Somehow the human nose has kept a comparative purity of response; it remains a proud, indignant organ. The ears, however, are defeated territory.

Canned music settles over the mind like a terrible exhalation of "air fresheners." Noise becomes sinister when it ceases to be episode and becomes environment. When someone carries a loud radio onto a bus, what you have is an individual committing an aggression against his surroundings. But canned music is an assault of the surroundings against the individual. The environment itself commits the aggression and does so ironically in the guise of universal inoffensiveness.

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