From 1955 through 1963, the Acoustical Society of America published NOISE Control, a bimonthly journal dedicated to noise abatement. Focused mostly on technical solutions, NOISE Control was scientifically serious, though vexed by the subjective nature of listening for its entire life. It also ran amazing ads. (Interspersed here.)
NOISE Control, under that name, actually only lasted until 1961, after which it was succeeded by a nearly-identical periodical titled SOUND, Its Uses and Control. The name-change points to a realization by the editorial staff that noise control was ultimately too narrow, not to mention negative in focus – most articles were about the search for silence in an increasingly noisy world. Shifting to a focus on sound opened the journal to contributions like “Listening Through the Moth Ear,” “Supplementary Sound for Opera,” “Absolute Pitch Part I,” and “Sound in the Motion Picture Industry,” which were comparatively colorful and less burdened with acoustical jargon than earlier articles had been. However, for reasons unknown to me, SOUND, Its Uses and Control only lasted two years.
As a journal of applied acoustics, NOISE Control advocated technological solutions almost exclusively. It presented research about construction materials and architectural strategies that could contribute to a refined aural privacy – in the home, office, or factory. While complications related to frequency or other details beyond decibel were sometimes acknowledged, the search was on from Issue One for a universal ear, a quantifiable average of listening preferences. The search for standards was assumed to be a temporary problem whose solution was not too far over the horizon. According to an article in the first issue, “all of us can agree at once that a standard on what are ‘permissible, objectionable, and injurious noise levels’ would be a fine thing. But do we know enough yet to do the job of writing such a standard?”
The journal was also closely linked to the project of industrial efficiency. Its content dealt above all else with manufacturing contexts, including ventilating systems and aircraft engine test facilities. Articles often cited data about how noise affected productivity in factories and offices, and offered solutions that would keep things running more smoothly. Even NOISE Control‘s editorial board was made up largely of corporate officers at companies like General Motors, Liberty Mutual, and Douglas Aircraft Co.
The notion of preference was mostly outside of the journal’s sphere, at times impatiently dismissed. Wrote one contributor: “Most people, except those who prefer the bawdy noise of the cocktail hour or night club, like things quiet. We like it quiet because it is peaceful and restful, and by nature we like to have a quiet atmosphere in which to live and work.”
There were a few exceptions to this kind of rhetoric, and not every writer was ignorant of the subjective qualities of listening. According to another piece, “there is no reason why engineers should feel that dealing with a subjective quantity such as annoyance is less important than making the more objective measurements of work output or energy consumption.” But even articles like this one eventually resorted to quantitative claims: “We know that … annoyance increases with frequency.” It was clearly difficult for the community of researchers to be comfortable with a plurality of listener types.
For the sake of not repeating historical patterns of inquiry, especially the wild goose chase of expecting technological solutions to fix every noise problem, NOISE Control should be required reading for noise abatement specialists everywhere, not to mention Sound Studies scholars.