Friday, February 19, 2010

The Most Annoying Sound

For some, it is fingernails on a chalk board. For others, it is the cry of a hungry baby. I am partial to hating horns. Not musical instruments, of course, but car horns, truck horns, and train horns. That is perfectly normal, I suppose, since the horn is a warning sound. Before there were horns to warn people of danger, there were bells. Poe’s wonderful sound poem, The Bells, devotes a section to “... loud alarum bells/Brazen bells! /What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells! /In the startled ear of night /How they scream out their affright!” The purpose of the horn on a car or other moving vehicle is to warn others of danger.

When I was a youngster, a certain family member, upon arrival, always sounded his car horn, prompting my father to exclaim, “That man is the only person I know who can scrape the gears in an automatic!” Obviously, dad didn’t like the sound any more than I do now. The use and misuse of automobile horns is more pervasive today. My car even uses its horn to tell me, “Hey, idiot, you already locked the doors!”

Never have I heard so many blaring horns as I did when visiting New York City. Drivers there seem to keep one hand on the wheel and the other poised to strike the horn button. I was taught that a car horn is a warning device, but that’s not true in NYC. At first the cacaphony was jarring, then I became somewhat more accustomed to this annoying aspect of the city environment. However, as I sat in the aptly named Majestic Theatre, watching a matinee performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, there was a quiet moment, designed to intensify the mysterious setting. But it didn’t quite work, because I could hear the brazen horns on the street outside the theatre.

Recently, I was driving my son to band practice in Athens, Georgia, and had to slow rather a lot to make a turn into a steep parking lot entrance. A smallish automobile behind me beeped, rather like the cartoon Road-Runner, apparently displeased at having to use his brakes. Ten minutes later, after leaving the practice area, I was on Broad Street and a driver was opening a car door a few feet in front of me, which caused me to change lanes rather than mow him down. The motorist behind me shared his annoyance at having to use his brakes by blaring his horn. My first thought was that downtown Athens is almost as noisy as NYC, but there are no decent plays. How uncivilized!

As I drove toward a more peaceful part of town, away from the impatient student population, I realized that misusing a warning horn is rather like crying “Wolf.” When I hear a car horn nowadays, instead of being warned, I am apt to be annoyed, which defeats the purpose. In Poe’s day, only a hoodlum would ring the fire bells when there was no fire. Times have indeed changed, and our culture is changing with it, but not for the better. As Robert A Heinlein states in his novel, Friday, “...a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than a riot.”

Heinlein identifies other aspects of a sick culture, including “when its income and outgo get out of balance and stay that way...high taxes,” a loss of faith in the police and the courts, and violence. Modern day America is afflicted with all of those to some degree. But those youthful drivers sounding horns over nothing is indeed troubling.

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