Universiteit Leiden

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‘Once you really learn to listen, a whole new world opens up’

Marcel Cobussen, professor of Auditory Culture and Music Philosophy, has made listening his speciality. From the sounds of a microwave to chirruping birds, he studies how people treat noise in their environment and what kind of information sounds can give. His mission: to teach people to listen better and to get them to think about how sound determines how they live. ‘At night, you close your eyes, but your ears remain active. That’s something we need to be careful with.’

Cobussen, who has been a professor in Leiden since 2016, has good reasons for studying sound. ‘The World Health Organisation has been warning for a long time that noise pollution is an invisible but very present problem in densely populated regions, and that it’s the cause of a lot of suffering. And sometimes the effects can be fatal.’

Sounds can mean different things to different people, Cobussen explains. Take the noise made by motorbikes, for example: if the first thing it makes you think about is Hells Angels, you’re bound to find it irritating. ‘We all agree loud noises can be unpleasant, but soft sounds can also be highly irritating. I can cope with the loud singing of Feyenoord football supporters, but a tap that keeps on slowly dripping can be an absolute pain to have to listen to.’ 

Nuance in the debate on noise

Cobussen tries to bring some nuance to the debate on noise. He has worked with the municipality of Leiden, who invited him after his inaugural lecture to advise them on the plans for restructuring the Garenmarkt, a public square that borders on a complex for senior citizens. ‘The residents were worried that more events would be held there, and that they’d have a lot more nuisance from noise.’  

He introduced the two parties to the idea of interventions that have a ‘direct effect’, such as the use of particular materials. ‘Cobblestones sound very different from asphalt or a hard surface, and  greenery can have a soundproofing effect, although not always, because when there are no leaves on the trees, noise can still get through. To combat that, you need to think about diversity in what kind of trees and shrubs you plant. Then there’s the fact that different trees can attract different animal life. That may sound like a marginal effect, but the auditory impact can be important.’

Struggle to get people to listen

Cobussen aims to extend his sphere of influence even further by encouraging bodies like the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) to take a different approach to noise.’ I want them to think of noise not just as something negative, where decibels are the only concern.’ He understands how difficult that is: ‘It’s a real struggle to get people to actually listen. In many instances, noise gets the blame while the problem is something else.’

Written by: Judith Laanen
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Journal of Sonic Studies

Cobussen left his background as a jazz pianist to became a ‘hardcore academic’. He hopes his research will get people to think differently about noise, but also wants more use to be made of ‘auditory interventions’ to improve our quality of life. ‘If we can do that, I’ll think my work has been a success.’ 

It was partly with this in mind that, in 2012, he started the Journal of Sonic Studies. This online open access journal is for everyone who is studying noise. ‘From medical science to biology and linguistics: there’s no area where sound doesn’t play a role.’ People working in these different areas are often sitting on their own little islands, Cobussen believes. He wants this publication to bring them together: ‘The idea is to give them a platform to present their work and to learn about research on noise.’

‘Make university research public’

Cobussen believes it would be far better if all university research was in the public domain, and he advocates making the huge costs for separate scientific articles a thing of the past. ‘Researchers also have to be able to explain what they are contributing to the community, socially or politically. We’re spending public money so we have to justify why our research is important. That’s still largely not happening; we just take it for granted.’

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