By Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times
My two friends and I don’t expect a Nobel Prize. We don’t expect to have a bridge or a building named after us. None of the great scientists think in those terms while pursuing their breakthroughs; they think only of the good their research might do for humanity. That’s what we were thinking about as we sat in assorted public places on an 80degree evening taking turns wearing a pair of purple earmuffs and a ridiculous knit cap made to look like a kitten’s
head. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what we were thinking. It was actually somewhat difficult to concentrate because of the racket the bagpipers and tuba players were making.
An outfit called Make Music New York had arranged outdoor musical performances all over town, some by professionals, others featuring recreational players who simply turned up at a designated time and place to jam.
The heart has to love the idea of this event: making connections among musicians and creating surprise bursts of music for unsuspecting pedestrians. But the cold, grumpy rational mind might well conclude that New York City
doesn’t really need any more music, thank you. What with the concert halls, the clubs, the licensed buskers, the unlicensed buskers, the elevator music, the ring tones and the blaring car radios, you already can’t go more than a few minutes without hearing some, whether you want to or not.
No, New York doesn’t really need any more music; what it needs is more silence. But can the average person hope to find any these days? Is there anything a guy who just wants a little peace and quiet can put in or over his ears to get it?
Make Music New York seemed the perfect opportunity to answer that last question through a rigidly controlled scientific study. I picked four of its events to test various din-reducing products. I avoided pricey stuff like Bose noisecancelling headphones, which cost about $300, on the theory that anyone who can afford to spend $300 on headphones can also afford a second home in the country where there’s plenty of quiet. My focus was on things you can get from a drugstore for a few bucks or from the back of your closet for nothing.
To help conduct the research, I recruited two people with special knowledge of acoustics:
Lucy Healy-Kelly, whose expertise is based on living next to Boots & Saddle, a bar in the West Village where karaoke often breaks out; and Gwen Orel, whose expertise consists of having ears and owning the aforementioned kitty hat, one of those embarrassing things with flaps that cover the ears.
Ms. Orel brought the kitty hat, and I brought four other noise-dampeners: the purple earmuffs, cotton balls and two of the dozen or so products Duane Reade had on the shelf, BioEars soft silicone earplugs ($4.99) and Mack’s SafeSound Ultra soft foam earplugs ($5.79). The plan was for the three of us to put each to the test at four Make Music sites, then compare notes.
Our first stop was Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, which, interestingly, the city has recently designated a Quiet Zone, where the playing of musical instruments is not permitted. Maybe the ban was suspended for the day, because that was the Make Music gathering place for clarinetists. We arrived just as eight of them were striking up a classical tune for the benefit of about two dozen onlookers. We ran our tests unobtrusively, since we didn’t want to be viewed as commenting on the musicianship, which was pretty good. We were interested only in whether there was anything in our arsenal that a clarinet's high pitch could penetrate.
From there it was down to Broadway and 66th, where six saxophonists were offering a tune that sounded like randomly bleating sheep as a largely indifferent public streamed by. The four tuba players we heard at Broadway and 63rd were more enjoyable, and then we headed to Herald Square, where six bagpipers had drawn a modest audience. The research phase of our study was not entirely without incident. Ms. Orel managed to get one of the BioEar plugs, which have the tackiness of chewing gum, stuck in her hair, and the earmuffs, which were childsize, imploded during the final test, having been stretched to fit an adult head once too often.
Despite these setbacks, a few conclusions were clear. We agreed that the earmuffs and the kitty hat were essentially useless in blocking sound, a dismaying discovery because I thought they made quite a fashion statement. And Mack’s Ultras were the most effective, though not, Ms. Orel noted, as effective as simply sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears.
Of course, none of these options actually eliminated the noise; they only diminished it a tad. Which brings us to my point. For those on a drugstore budget, there is absolutely no escaping the city’s din, and it will only grow worse.
With fewer orchestra jobs available but music schools still churning out graduates, the city will increasingly be choked with idle musicians, and the flashmob craze means they don’t have to wait for Make Music New York day to assemble. Soon, roving gangs of bagpipers will be invading neighbourhoods much the way honking geese have invaded suburban towns.
"We can always call the police," you might say. Maybe not. The authorities have recently been trying to enforce the Quiet Zone restrictions in the park, but the result has been an uproar. Apparently noisemakers are not willing to cede even a few hundred square feet of the city’s 301 square miles to lovers of silence. I don’t mean to trash Make Music New York day, a well-intentioned event. It’s just too bad there will never be a Pipe Down New York day
to match it.