What is the difference between sound and noise? Have you ever pondered this question? During formal meditation yesterday, it entered my mind.
Noise is a subjective category of sound. Noise is sound that seems unpleasant or annoying to a person or people. So, a sound might be simply in the background or become a noise. Sound can be easily ignored, or it might be pleasant, or it might be unpleasant, all at the same time to different people.
During the meditation, I heard a squirrel chattering outside near the window. Normally, such a sound goes largely unnoticed in my mind. Other times, I want to investigate why the squirrel is using its scolding voice. Once in awhile, a chattering squirrel is annoying–especially when I’m trying to concentrate on a task.
When the squirrel chattered, I wasn’t simply listening to the chirping sound. My mind had already fabricated a mental image of the squirrel in my consciousness. The mind was realizing the squirrel at the same time the squirrel was emitting the sound. In effect, I was chattering with the squirrel.
Normally, a chattering squirrel is only mildly interesting and I pay little heed to it. This time, however, the sound was insistent and rather loud. The chattering was beginning to get on my nerves. In a split second the chattering went from being just a sound to becoming a noise. The meditation had gone off track because of the mind’s interpretation of the squirrel’s chattering.
I took a few deep breaths in order to “reset” consciousness. The chattering continued, but I allowed the chattering in my mind to simply be background sound. The chattering became part of meditation and was no longer noise. I accepted the chattering as an aspect of my own mind and not as a personal affront by the squirrel. In fact, once the squirrel stopped voicing the sound, I was sorry that it had ended.
There is also the situation of loud music at rock concerts. While the concert attendee may enjoy the high volume of sound emitting from the loudspeakers, physical damage is happening to the inner ear. Part of the price the listener will pay for the loud music may be tinnitus the next day. The ringing in the ears, actually a mental phenomenon, can become a chronic noise that never goes away.
If our hearing is reasonably healthy, we hear sounds all the time, day in and day out. We pay scant attention to the vast majority of these sounds. The air conditioner may whir in the background and we don’t take notice until something causes us to hear it. Perhaps it cycles to off and we notice the sudden presence of silence.
I enjoy the sounds of a thunderstorm. The driving rain splashing against the awnings and the crashing of thunder seem exciting and fun. However, there are personal limits to this enjoyment. If I need to catch up on sleep and a storm awakens me, the sounds are annoying. The last thing I want to hear is a noisy storm interrupting my slumber. It takes several minutes for me to re-frame that annoyance into a state of simple alertness in case I might need to retreat to the basement due to a tornado warning.
So, sound is neutral. Noise is the negative mental interpretation of a sound.