BEDLAM (ˈbɛdləm)
-n 1. a noisy confused place or situation.
Thinking about Mysterious Hums – The Importance of a Source

We’ve introduced so many unconsidered noises into our sonic environment that we’ve created new noises that we are longer certain of the source. This happens at a large scale in towns, villages and cities but it also occurs in small ways in our own living environments. I have had several experiences where I am chasing a small, high-pitched or subtle low rumbling around my place trying to figure out where the noise is coming from. I’ve also spent time trying to eliminate hums and whirrs that result from the technologies I’ve introduced into my home. The last apartment that I had contained the most regularly noisy refrigerator. Our new loft has a quieter refrigerator which is great except that now the computer we use for a home media center is much more audible. Unless it is asleep, it emits a high-pitched humming sound that has thus far evaded all attempts at removal through system preference adjustments.

What if the source of a noise isn’t known? Is it important to know where a noise comes from in order to understand it? Pierre Schaeffer talks about the sonorous object, a term that he uses to describe a sound as a “thing” of its own. In his discussion, and I am simplifying a bit for now, once a sound is made, heard and/or recorded, the source of the sound has no baring on the sound itself. The sound should now be considered within its own context, based on its own parameters and characteristics. So then why the importance of identifying the source of the mysterious hum? I assume this to be an act in pursuit of elimination. But what then? Let’s say the source is identified. What if the source ends up being something necessary like a public water facility. I suppose it is important to know the source in order to decide whether the noise is justified or not, even if it does simply come down to an issue of NIMBY.

There’s also an interesting aspect to this where each individual thinks that they are going crazy until they find out that others are also hearing / feeling the hum. If it’s one person, it’s a mental illness. If it’s multiple people sharing the experience, it isn’t? What if they’ve all just been exposed to the same stimuli that caused the hallucination?

I find lots of hums to be mysterious. I also find them to be intriguing. Yes, I can point at the MacMini that is our home media center and say “the high-pitched whirring hum” is coming from that. But then, being that I can’t really see what’s going on inside, I’m also interested in what inside is making the noise. Is it the spinning of the disk making friction with another part? Is it the result of the spinning disk moving through air like some kind of whistle? Is it just the fan or are there other things adding to the noise? For example, the noise definitely changes when I insert a DVD but it also changes depending on how long it has been running and how I’ve been watching videos. Streamed videos and downloaded videos make for slightly different noises as does watching extensive content from different streaming providers. Maybe this has to do with how the streaming content is delivered. The 2 primary services that I use each use different technologies for delivering their content. One uses Microsoft’s Silverlight in a browser while the other uses a standalone application built in Adobe Flash. Maybe the processing requirements of these two environments have caused a difference in the behavior of the machine and this accounts for the variation in noise performance. Maybe it’s just something that I think exists because I notice the sounds at different times.

Regardless of my ongoing personal listening issues with a small computer, there is something about this need to identify the source that I find to be of interest. Mostly in that I am curious what will happen if the source is eventually identified. Identification might make it even more clear whether or not something can be done about it. What if it falls on the “nothing” side of the what-can-be-done fence? One of the hums I’ve been interested in was being investigated by a local municipality that promised to do “whatever they could to help.” They narrowed it down to an industrial area and suddenly couldn’t do anything else to assist residents in identifying the noise. The commonly held belief in the community is that the city officials learned that the hum was coming from a commercial enterprise and instead of helping its citizens, it backed off in order to not harm the corporation. I know that “corporations are people” but unfortunately, they aren’t the kind of people with ears and bedtimes so they generally aren’t lodging noise complaints.







All content ©2014 Alex Braidwood unless otherwise stated.


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