So much attention is aimed at what we put into our bodies – through our mouths. Organic foods, Whole Foods, raw foods, vitamins, supplements, and fad diets. Ingredients are pored over, and the merits and dangers of GMO are debated. Testing and FDA approval are required before many foods can reach our mouths. But relatively little attention is given to our sonic diet; what we put into our bodies through our ears.

How do our sonic environments, and the music we choose to listen to, affect our well-being? My former teacher Ivan Tcherepnin said that too many aural sweets ruin the earteeth. Just as with food and drink, moderation is important. When feeling down, listening to the music of someone like Elliott Smith can provide initial solace. But too much of it becomes the emotional quicksand of stuck feelings. A balanced diet is key.

Just as it’s unwise to constantly eat, it’s unhealthy to consume sound without silence. Relatively silent spaces can be challenging to find in urban spaces. Silence itself seems to be feared; a container which is rapidly filled with external or internal chatter. Composer R. Murray Schafer wrote in his book The Tuning of the World, “If we have a hope of improving the acoustic design of the world, it will be realizable only after the recovery of silence as a positive state in our lives.” It’s fun to play the notes, but the rests provide the context. Ear food needs time to be properly digested!

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the BART trains expose passengers to sustained bouts of up to 90 decibel noise. While unlikely to damage riders’ ears, it’s enough to make them feel that they’re traveling inside of a shrieking metal banshee. Since we have no earlids (like eyelids), earplugs are necessary to block out these “undigestible” sounds. What would the experience of riding these trains be like if a sound designer (or “sonic nutritionist”) had been involved with its planning and construction?

How can we better plan our ear meals?