We had biked a few miles on a dirt track north of Dead Horse Point before stopping to take in the distant rock-and-river spectacle from a cliff-top promontory. My brother and his 23-year-old son gazed at the sidewinder curves of the Colorado River. It was a hot, windless day. Not even a birdcall broke the silence. Then my brother asked his son, “What do you hear?” “Nothing,” he replied. Turning to me he said, “How about you?” I concentrated for a moment on the unobtrusive, high-pitched buzz my ears registered.
“Cicadas,” I said. “I hear cicadas chirping.” He smiled knowingly. He heard them, too, he said.
Of course, there are no cicadas in Moab. The buzz was inside our heads. What we were hearing is symptomatic of tinnitus, a form of damaged hearing often attributed to the effect of loud noise on unprotected ears. Tinnitus afflicts 36 million, mostly older people like my brother and me. You might call it the wages of sin. Our generation came of age listening to loud music. We used earplugs while mowing or weed-whacking about as often as we applied sunscreen. So, all these years later, the devil gets his due in the clinics of dermatologists and audiologists. In my case, tinnitus is a high-pitched hum so deep in the background that awareness of it requires a conscious effort. Most other noise is intrusive and I recoil from it. That was not always the case, however. I recall a Jerry Jeff Walker concert at the House of Blues when the music was so loud my clothes vibrated. I had a pretty good time—drinking beer and singing lustily—but I would never do so again. To be assailed by prolonged loud noise is to be left spent.
If I am typical, noise tolerance diminishes with age. In my 20s, I bought a motorcycle and promptly dismantled the muffler. From then on, every roar of acceleration was thrilling. Nowadays, I glare at
drivers whose throbbing woofers intrude into my personal space. In my 20s, any reasonable stereo set had a muscular amplifier on which you could jack the bass and crank up the volume on Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead records. Nowadays, I bring earplugs to indoor sporting events and rock concerts by the likes of King Niko. I asked Zach Sloan, King Niko’s drummer, to take a decibel meter to a rehearsal. He measured noise levels around 120 decibels, louder than a power saw at three feet, loud enough to cause hearing problems like tinnitus. Had King Niko been playing for an audience, the venue’s management would have had to make earplugs available in order to comply with health-department regulations.
Noise has become so objectionable that I avoid bars with blaring television sets, and I don’t patronize restaurants where you have to raise your voice to be heard across the table. I keep trying new restaurants, hoping to find a quiet one, but the trend in design favors the eye at the expense of the ear. Sound-reflecting surfaces like tile, wood, metal and brick are in vogue. Soft, sound-absorbing materials—including tablecloths—are not. When the resultant din becomes a detriment, the interior undergoes an overnight acoustic retrofit to lower the decibel level. That is what happened at Finca and Sea Salt.
On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that noise is good for business. A recent story by Cara Buckley in The New York Times described popular restaurants in Manhattan with ambient noise above 90 decibels, the equivalent of a jackhammer at 50 feet. In the cacophony, the restaurants found sales of food and drink increased and people moved in and out at a faster rate. The lesson has not been lost on Salt Lake City restaurateurs, says Mary Brown Malouf, food and dining editor of Salt Lake Magazine. “People are less inclined to linger when they have to shout.”
Background music is also apparently used to advantage. People tend to drink more when the music is loud. Citing a study by Nicolas Gueguen, the Times’ Buckley writes, “When the bar’s music was 72 decibels, people ordered an average of 2.6 drinks and took 14.5 minutes to finish one. But when the volume was turned up to 88 decibels, customers ordered an average of 3.4 drinks and took 11.5 minutes to finish each one.”
It is not so much that I mind being manipulated by a bar or restaurant, it is just that I prefer to be seduced by a whisper rather than be browbeaten by a shout. A lot of people feel the same way, I think. According to a Zagat survey, 24 percent of restaurant customers complain about noise. For the majority, noise levels are evidently not a concern. Dale Keller, manager of sanitation and safety for the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, says the indoor, amplified-noise regulation acknowledges the fact that some people go to events “to enjoy the sound, regardless of decibel level.” The regulation is intended to “allow a person to make an informed decision to be in an environment where the sound level has a potential for hearing damage,” he says.
And that’s OK with me, especially in this season of al fresco dining. On a patio, uncontained by brick or tile, free of what Malouf calls “the false conviviality of hard surfaces,” noise dissipates in the open air like smoke. My wife and I lingered over dinner with friends on Café Madrid’s patio recently and never raised our voices. In the twilight, we shared tapas, cold Spanish wine and conversation—all in 40-decibel bliss.