It’s now official: noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound

Photo credit: ICBEN

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The standard definition of noise, adopted almost 100 years ago in the early days of acoustic science, is: “noise is unwanted sound.” There are at least three problems with that definition. First, it implies that those complaining about noise are weak, neurotic or self-centered and are only interested in their own auditory comfort. Second, it ignores the fact that even wanted sound — such as loud music at concerts or clubs — can cause auditory damage. And finally, it ignores the serious non-auditory health effects of noise that include cardiovascular disease and psychological disturbances.

Starting about five years ago, in lengthy email discussions with colleagues at the Quiet Coalition, we formulated a revised definition: “noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound.”

The new definition was presented at the Acoustical Society of America meeting in San Diego, California in December 2019 and subsequently published. It was then presented virtually to an international audience at the 13th Congress of the International Commission on Biological Effects of Noise (ICBEN). After the presentation, the ICBEN president Mark Brink asked, “What would you think about ICBEN adopting the new definition for its use?” I replied, “I think that would be a good idea.”

At the concluding session of this year’s ICBEN Congress in Belgrade, Serbia, from June 18-22, ICBEN announced that it had adopted the new definition. So it’s now official: Noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound.

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