The Noise Around Us


“There is music everywhere.
This is what strikes me most about my first few minutes walking about the flying city of Columbia in Irrational Games’s upcoming BioShock Infinite”
—.From Erik Kain’s review of BioShock Infinite in Forbes magazine, Dec. 07, 2012.

It’s hard to be different, an outsider, and still feel part of a group. Living in Arizona, and having a different view on immigration and, well, a lot of other issues, I have learned to keep my opinions to myself. After all, if the dentist has sharp instruments in your mouth and is on a rant, you don’t want to disagree too strenuously.

There’s such a conflict rising in me when I hear someone saying something I don’t agree with, particularly if it’s mean. I think the quote attributed to Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” or the William Butler Yeats quote, “The  best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” It’s from the poem The Second Coming.


This is how I felt.

So it was that I felt really conflicted in a recent class, when one of the participants, without asking, turned on her iPad and began to play music loud enough for all to hear. She insisted she had to have music to work. Unfortunately, I can’t work if music is playing. Yes, I know this is odd. We are surrounded by music. My bank has a braying TV on all day, so does every doctor’s office, airport, restaurant, car repair shop, sports equipment shop, pet store and harware store. Still, my studio is quiet. For me, being grounded and in the moment means being quiet so I can hear what I’m thinking.

In class, I asked, somewhat fearfully, if we could work without music. Two or three class members said they liked music. There was no vote, and about 12 class members, so the three who spoke up weren’t a majority. But no one agreed with me. So the music stayed. There was no offer of compromise. No agreement that when the music-needer went to lunch, she could turn off her iPad. The woman at the table in front of me began to sing with the music. I’m sure she was all heart, but she was also off-key. For three days, it did not change.

And so I sat at my table, trying to focus. I had paid a full fee to be in the class.

And this is what it sounded like (just to me).

And this is what it sounded like (just to me).

Did I have a right to ask the music-needer to put on earphones? I lacked the nerve. So I put mine on and listened to white noise, which helped me focus, but I stayed unhappy.

I had to do a lot of self-management, and felt alone and disconnected. Not one person suggested that we alternate or that a vote be taken. When I tried to turn down the sound when music-needer went to lunch, she came back, turned it back up, and asked the women who agreed with her if they wanted it on at lunch. Yep, they did. Still, only three.

Finally, I had to settle. I was not going to get a ruling from the instructor, who had been present for the conversations. I was not going to get a break from music-needer. So I went back to my earphones and did what I usually do when I am distracted and unheard: reviewed goals. Set priorities.  I’d come to learn the technique, to create a piece with that technique and to get feedback. That part was happening. So my goals were being met. Past that, things were not going to go my way, but my top priority was met. I sucked it up.

I’m still not sure if I should have done more. I don’t know what I could have done. A vote might have clarified things, but it would have had to be called by the instructor. I was aware that I wasn’t in charge, and wasn’t getting support. Past that, I was also not getting what I needed to work in class.

What are the rights of people who prefer silence? Or who prefer music? Where is the line between getting your way and bullying? When class participants disagree, is compromise possible?

What would you have done?

Quinn McDonald is looking for answers, and trying to be fair.