Birds, flowing water and voices on the radio: these might be a welcomed break from the otherwise chaotic noisy world for some people, but for myself and my hearing loss, these sounds can drive me to distraction.
What fascinates me is how something one person finds irritating another finds soothing – and vice versa.
When I don’t have my hearing aids in, the most irritating sound I encounter is the tinny ‘chirping’ and ‘clicking’ of voices on the radio. Unlike many people with hearing loss, I can still hear very high pitch noises without my hearing aids. (I have otosclerosis in my hearing ear, which means I’m losing my hearing progressively from the lowest pitches upwards. I have no hearing at all in my other ear.)
I have a tinnitus noise which sounds just like these clicks and chirrups. Sometimes, when I’m half asleep, it’s hard to know if it’s my tinnitus I hear, or if my husband’s has turned on the radio.
Since moving to the countryside, I have a new contender for my ‘what’s that noise?’ quiz: Rooks. Rooks are members of the Crow family. We have a breeding colony of Rooks opposite our house and, without my hearing aids, the noise the Rooks make sound the same to me as voices on the radio and one of my tinnitus sounds. If I hear/perceive the ‘clicking’ sound, I don’t know which it is: Rook, radio or tinnitus.
With my hearing aids in, I have become accustomed to the Rooks’ calls. However, I wouldn’t go as far as to say I found them ‘relaxing’, which my husband does. The same goes for the chatter of the sparrows.
Recently, I was working on our business accounts with my husband/business partner, when I got up and closed the French doors. “I can’t hear myself think for the birds,” I explained.
“Really? I find it relaxing.”
I found that interesting. The chatter of the House Sparrows was really getting on my nerves, making it hard for me to concentrate on the numbers on the spreadsheet. There were about 20 sparrows outside – some parents, and some youngsters demanding to be fed. It was a real cacophony. (They’re at it now as I type this too, and again. Let me just close the doors… Ahh, that’s better!)
Often, when people are interviewed about their hearing loss and about getting hearing aids, it’s the absence of and rediscovery of birdsong which gets a mention. Birdsong brings so much joy to so many people – and, it does me too. I love hearing the Skylark’s song whilst out walking and the call of a Robin or a Chaffinch – but the chatter of a dozen hungry sparrows or the noise from a rookery, is nowhere near as elevating as the call of a lone Skylark!
Often, when people are interviewed about their hearing loss and about getting hearing aids, it’s the absence of and rediscovery of birdsong which gets a mention.
In 2013, the BBC launched a show featuring the songs of different British birds. At the time, the BBC website ran an article that included this statement from Julian Treasure.
“What makes birdsong so special is that it relaxes people physically but stimulates them cognitively,” [creating a] state he calls ‘body relaxed, mind alert’. […] People find birdsong relaxing and reassuring because over thousands of years they have learnt when the birds sing they are safe, it’s when birds stop singing that people need to worry. Birdsong is also nature’s alarm clock, with the dawn chorus signalling the start of the day, so it stimulates us cognitively.” – Julian Treasure, author of ‘’Sound Business and chairman of noise consultancy The Sound Agency.
One reason people might find birdsong relaxing is because it is ‘stochastic’: the sounds are random. When there is no predicted pattern, it doesn’t become an earworm and get stuck in your head. However, I wonder if, because I work so hard all the time to work out what sounds are, and where they’re coming from, thats why stochastic sounds don’t relax me. Am I subconsciously ‘on edge’ waiting for the next call or the next chirp – or, as Julian Treasure hints – perhaps it’s in case the birdsong ceases?
The sound that relaxes me the most is the sound of wood on a real fire crackling as it burns. I know what the sound is and where it’s coming from, so I can totally relax. A crackle from the fire never signifies anything I need concern myself with, so I can just let the sounds wash over me. The added bonus of a real fire is that you can gaze into the flames and lose yourself in the ever-changing patterns, swirls and flickers of the flames – and you can toast marshmallows!
When I find myself being irritated by sound, I remind myself that I’m grateful I can hear sounds at all. But, sometimes, some noises just are irritating.
Stochastic sounds are often recommended listening for people with tinnitus, and yet many are sounds I found personally quite irritating, for example: whale-song, crickets chirping, a waterfall, etc.