CAN YOU WORK AMIDST NOISE? by robert lynd

Examiner – 17 February 1940

CAN YOU WORK AMIDST NOISE?

    THE Hungarian inventor, Herr Oskar von Asboth, who lately arrived in England to put his services at the disposal of the British Air Ministry, is an ardent lover of noise. He is reported to have said that he finds it “absolutely impossible” to work unless dance music is being played in the room. “So,” he told an interviewer, “I have a wireless set or a gramophone playing all the time I am making my calculations or thinking out a difficult problem. This helps to keep my brain clear.”
    If the Institute of Public Opinion enquired into the matter I wonder what proportion of people would be found voting for noise, particularly as an aid to work. One would have thought that brain-workers, at least, would be opposed to it almost to a man.

    EVEN if most of them dislike noise, however, there is evidence that a good many of them are exceptions to the rule. Mr. H. G. Wells, for instance, once declared that he could not work in absolute silence. He said that if things became too quiet he turned on the wireless or got someone to play the piano, or even threw open the window to let some noise in.
    Ford Madox Ford was another novelist who welcomed noise as an aid to work. I knew a young friend of his who used to play the piano to him as he wrote. Miss Vicki Baum, too, it is said, likes to have plenty of noise going on round her while she is writing, and works more cheerfully amid the intermittent buzz of a hotel lounge than in the silence of a study.
    I imagine, however, that ninety-nine writers out of a hundred detest noise. One of the most famous of living novelists is so extreme a noise-hater that he always puts cotton-wool in his ears before he sits down to his typewriter.

    AND, though it is probably easier to paint than to write with a noise going on, I have known a painter to be exasperated to the point of madness by a street musician’s playing of “The Londonderry Air” on a cornet. He told me that he found it almost impossible to paint even if he were interrupted by the sound of his lazy landlord’s prolonged course of morning yawns from the room next the studio.
    Whistler was equally intolerant of noise. Toward the end of his life, when he was living in Chelsea. building operations began at the back of the house, and so infuriated was he by the cheerful noises the builders made with their trowels and vocal chords that he rushed out of the house and ordered them to cease work at once, as he could not paint amid such a din. So little respect is paid to genius, however, that the builders merely laughed at him as a funny little man.
    Few men, fortunately, are so sensitive as Whistler. Most men can do their work in a fairly noisy atmosphere if there is no alternative to it. Journalists have written articles in rattling railway trains with conversation going on round them. If a man has to get something written, I suppose, his powers of concentration come to his aid so that he ceases to be conscious of the noises that ought to be making work impossible.

    WHETHER Mr. Bernard Shaw likes noise as an accompaniment to work I do not know, but I know that he can write brilliantly while other people are talking. In the early days of the Great War I was sent down to Torquay to see Mr. Shaw and try to get an article or an interview out of him.
    Inviting me up to his sitting-room in the hotel, he said that he would write an article there and then while Mrs. Shaw and I talked. And not only could he write while we talked; he seemed even to be able to write and to join in the conversation at the same time. And the article, when he had finished it, was a masterpiece.
    Few men, however, have Mr. Shaw’s power of letting his brain do two things at once. It used to be said of him that he liked, while reading one morning paper, to have his secretary reading aloud to him from another paper. Most of us, in such circumstances, would get a strangely confused notion either of the day’s news or of the editorial comments on it. Even the noise made by someone turning the pages of a newspaper I find distracting if I am trying to concentrate on a piece of work.
    That noise can be not only not detrimental to work but a stimulus to it, however, is suggested by various experiments that have been made in providing music during working hours in factories and elsewhere. After all, if soldiers march more efficiently to music it seems reasonable to believe that other forms of toil might go with a swing under the same influence. That they do so is suggested by reports from a number of factories and workshops in which music-with-work has been tried.
    I sometimes wonder, however, whether, when once the novelty of the thing has worn off, the music continues to be equally stimulating. I confess I would rather never hear music at all than have to listen to it all day long.

    THE reason why some people like to have music—especially dance music—going on while they are working is not, I suspect, that they love noise, but that the noise of the music drowns other noises. Isolated from the noises of the outside world, they can concentrate better. And, besides this, they probably in time acquire a gift for not even hearing the dance music that is pulsing through the air of the room.
    Herr von Asboth, I notice, declares that the music to which he does his work must be dance music and that nothing else will do. This means, I take it, that great music—the music of Bach or Beethoven—would be too distracting, that it would have to be listened to and (unlike dance music), could not be half-ignored.
    I am afraid, however, that I, for one, should never be able to ignore it. I do not much care for it when I am idle and I should hate it when I was busy.
    The truth is I belong to the old “snarleygob” school of thought whose motto is: “The less noise the better.”

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