When I was a scabby-kneed schoolboy interested in geography, I used to slowly rotate the classroom globe with my fingers, fascinated by the shapes of the continents and countries sliding by, such as Indonesia with its over 13,000 islands spanning three time zones.
The one annoyance was how this globe squeaked like an unoiled wheel as it turned. I now recognise this as an early sign that my life on Earth was not going to be a quiet one.
I was especially awed that there were three billion people on the planet. It seemed an awful lot. That was in the 1960s. Since then, the figure has grown to 7.5 billion. In my lifetime, the population of planet Earth has more than doubled. And some of the consequences of this surplus of people aren’t the ones you’d normally think of.
For instance, I recently tried to watch David Attenborough’s latest natural history TV series, expecting to hear only the great narrator’s spell-binding whisper sending a tingle down the spine of the forest. Alas, whenever a creature did something, it was accompanied by a barrage of intrusive music. A scorpion emerges from a desert hole (Horns! Trombones! Kettle drums!) A butterfly hovers above a flower (Violas! Cymbals! Banjos!) A gorilla emerges from the mist (Bagpipes! Tambourines! Harps!). It was as though the natural environment contained a giant HiFi system with blaring 50-watt speakers installed in every flower and tree trunk.
Imagine if real life were like that, and a symphony orchestra followed you everywhere you went, ready to mark every pivot and turn your fortunes with a blast of music. Imagine this unshakable menagerie of musicians breaking into a blues riff when you received a depressingly large electricity bill or belting out a rendition of “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow“ whenever you went to the toilet. It would surely drive you mad.
Television producer Steven Moffat once boasted in an interview that the Welsh Philharmonic Orchestra provided the incidental music for the BBC Sci-fi series “Doctor Who“. Yes, he boasted about it. He wasn’t in the least bit ashamed of shackling the unfortunate Doctor, from the viewers’ point of view to an unshakable clamour as he travelled throughout space and time.
You’d have thought his enemies, the DALEKS and the Cybermen, were torment enough, and that the Doctor could at least be allowed the dignity of being exterminated in peace. Even his periodic regeneration, when he takes up residence in a new body, was accompanied by a musical rumpus as alarmingly climactic as Tchaikovsky’s 1612 Overture played at a frenzied tempo.
Gone are the days when television drama was blissfully bereft of force-fed sounds or at least was sparing with its emotive toots and jangles. In those days, the main assault on your musical tastes in life came from elevator music, or a Salvation Army band playing in the city centre with an over-loud tuba.
The hard of hearing doesn’t get let off either. Subtitles might seem like a good way of delivering dialogue, but they could do without the descriptions of sound effects placed in square brackets: [soft music plays], [stimulating rock can be heard], [a cacophony shatters the silence], forcing the inner ear to start playing up like a faulty washing machine.
What is wrong with TV these days? Why must music overrun dramas and documentaries, turning them into freakish wannabe musicals and operas that Inflict a kind of musical waterboarding on the viewer?
You may, my delicate-eared reader, think I have deviated from my earlier complaint about overpopulation and delivered a rant almost as loud as the object of my protest. Not so. My theory is that this over-abundance of music is a sign that there are too many people in the world.
In the same way that an excess of lawyers helps create a culture of litigation, with everyone encouraged to sue everyone else for the slightest wrongdoing, so too an excess of musicians and composers, all of whom need jobs, results in music getting everywhere, leaving not a pocket of still air for anyone to enjoy. And while this might keep trumpet players and musical conductors employed, it does nothing for anyone else.
I admit I’ve always been oversensitive to noise. I published an article in this magazine (https://indonesiaexpat.id/outreach/comedy/the-big-noise/), describing how noise had driven me from home to home in Jakarta in search of peace and quiet. I could easily have written a sequel to that article. Indeed, noise pursued me like a phantom whenever I left Indonesia.
Most notable was when I lived above a bar in Phnom Penh. True, you would expect some noise living above a bar – the clinking of glasses, the clanging of the bell for last orders, and I’d lived above bars before without fuss, except that I had been unable to go straight home or go straight out for that matter, without stopping for a swift drink or two in what was effectively my public living room.
The bar in Phnom Penh, however, proved a much greater source of decibels. It had a resident female blues singer, whose talent enabled her to wail all through the night, accompanied by a bass player whose notes thudded more loudly than a Jackhammer. I don’t know why they didn’t just call themselves Roadworks. The noise was unbelievable. My apartment throbbed and buzzed like an old tractor. Even my pillow vibrated. And this would go on until four in the morning.
I tried earplugs but fitted them incorrectly – neglecting to squash them before shoving them into my ear canals. I woke up with a sore left ear and a trip to the doctor ahead of me. I tried blocking the din with one of those “pink noise” videos on YouTube, a twelve-hour-long heavy rain simulation complete with distant rumbling thunder, but I needed to play it so loud to have any effect that it was like trying to sleep aboard Noah’s Ark when the almighty deluge hit. In the end, as usual, I moved [sad synthesizer music blasts out].