Noise Altering

I’ve been thinking about noise: how much of it exists, its characteristics, and the lengths to which we go to remove it from our lives.

Not too long ago it was assumed that clean water’s not important, that seeing the stars is not that important. But now it is. And now I think we’re realizing quiet is important, and we need silence — that silence is not a luxury, but it’s essential.

Gordon Hempton — acoustic ecologist on a mission to “save quiet for the benefit of all life.”

Thinking about the above citation, it’s difficult for me to imagine a time when we assumed clean water was not important. It’s equally difficult to imagine that silence being important is a novel idea.

What feels more true is that silence is, by today’s standards, a luxury. For people who live in densely populated areas, finding an extended period of silence can be nearly impossible. To me this lack of silence is a function of two compounding factors:

  • Economic systems whereby being proximate to large numbers of other people is the most efficient form of having basic needs met.
  • Population growth.

Thus, the great majority of us live in places with other people; this is not novel, but a fact of life. And we’ve evolved to be unable to shut off our ears without technological intervention; we cannot close our ears like we can our eyes or mouths.

Since we have no way of eliminating it at its essence, I’m interested in exploring ways of reframing silence. Taking an oblique strategy might involve understanding and exploring its opposite: noise. I think sound whose intention has no purpose for the person experiencing it could be characterized as noise.


In 2014, I made a web-audio experiment with Laura Juo-Hsin Chen called “Tune in, tune out”. The experience would analyze the ambient environmental sound around the visitor, and use it as input into a musical experience — translating it into something remotely melodic.

Screenshot of the website

I’d like to revisit and update this experience, with a greater appreciation and attention to the sonic quality of the piece. Here was our original blurb:

We started idea of filtering out the “sound of the sound”. So much effort and energy has gone into our attempts to “escape” our immediate sonic environment: conversations, distracting noises, and try to drown out the surrounding chaos.

There’s no denying the need to focus, and there’s also no shortage of aural distractions, especially living in urban areas. “Tune In, Tune Out” offers an alternative to the music and tools we use to tune out the noise around us, channeling that very noise into a sonic landscape.

Published by Jeff Ong

I'm a designer, programmer, and artist based in Brooklyn, New York. I work at Automattic as a design director, using code to push and scale design.

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