Give our eardrums a break

By James Alan Fox
May 3, 2009

A funny thing happened on the way to the airport. Fearing the worst -- a toxic ride inside a stuffy taxi through morning rush-hour traffic -- I had the best: a courteous driver who asked me if the soft jazz on his radio was too loud. If I had a nickel for every time I have had to plead with a cabbie to turn down the music blasting from the rear speakers just behind my head, I could ride around town free for a month.

My issue is not so much about the decline of basic courtesy -- particularly among those who are paid to provide some type of service. The larger concern is the nuisance of secondhand tunes, the ear-piercing shrill of someone else's musical entertainment invading my personal space.

Years ago, there was much debate about noise pollution coming from oversize boom boxes. But thanks to Apple and the iPod, those wanting to enjoy whatever genre we new old fogies don't comprehend can just stick it in their ear. The use of iBuds also means that damage or discomfort is their problem alone.

If research by Brian Fligor at Children's Hospital Boston is any indication, there may be an entire generation of Americans who will lose their hearing prematurely. I have a fitting name for this auditory impairment: iPodence.

But the problem of insufferable, ambient noise -- music you don't want and absolutely don't like -- doesn't end with the iPod. Loud and unnecessary music is everywhere. It's the promotional theme heard on the 5:30 a.m. flight that disrupts passengers' ability to catch a quick nap. Does the airline really believe business folks want to "daybreak dance" to an early meeting or be entertained by anything louder than the screaming headlines of a local tabloid?

Most of all, it's dining by music that I deplore. I can accept having to yell at a cocktail lounge just to order some wings with my wine. Clubs depend on frenetic sounds for atmosphere. Mealtime is different, however. As a "muppy" (middle-age urban professional) who eats out more often than not, it is a real challenge to chat with my wife over dinner. I shouldn't need to learn sign language just to decipher the waiter's explanation of some dish that combines the words "reduction, confit and haricot vert."

I've come to tolerate and understand the need for fast-food joints to fill their air with pulsating rock music. Cheap eateries don't want their bargain-basement customers lingering too long over their refillable cups of soda. Plus, it's hard to retain a crew of young minimum-wage counter-help without entertaining them on the job. But the din during dinner at many upscale establishments is enough to make me scream. Actually, I have to scream just to be heard across the table.

Fed up with begging cafe managers to turn down the amps, I urged a legislator friend of mine to sponsor a restaurant noise abatement bill. After all, we banned cigarettes from restaurants because of the secondhand smoke that ruined other people's meals and threatened their health. What about controlling the decibel-level of secondhand music that has parallel effects on comfort and well-being?

My wise friend pointed out the 1st Amendment right to freedom of expression. But does that include loud expression? So I appeal to all the restaurateurs who might like my business -- and I know I'm not alone in seeking a comfortable spot to dine. How about a new type of early-bird special: quiet time during dinner hours? Soft background music is appreciated, but please wait until after dessert to blast away with the subwoofers. Otherwise, in order to keep my sanity, I might just have to be a real sport. Maitre d', a round of iPods for everyone!

James Alan Fox is a professor of law, policy and society at Northeastern University in Boston..