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Music Is Power: Michael Dunn, Jordan Davis, and How We Respond When People Turn Up the Volume

• March 05, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: majabokun/Shutterstock)

Second-hand sound can profoundly affect our social interactions and our interior lives.

The recent “loud music” trial of Michael Dunn in the shooting death of Jordan Davis and the mixed verdict the jury returned have occasioned passionate commentary. Liberal and conservative writers agree that, however “ridiculously, obnoxiously loud [the] thug music” was that Dunn heard, he should have had the presence of mind to move away from the music rather than reach for his gun. While the bulk of the commentary from the death and trial have focused on racial disparities and Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, perhaps we can also take some time to reflect on our nation’s passion for loud noise and its effects upon our interactions. Though music is invisible, it is far from powerless, and second-hand sound can profoundly affect our social interactions and our interior lives.

Let not anyone mistake my suggestion to investigate other issues as an attempt to dismiss how a controversial law and the differences in age and race between Dunn and Davis led to what took place on November 23, 2012. (Dunn, 47, is white; Davis, 17, was black.) I am black myself, and as a professor of music, I am routinely exposed to remarks by well-meaning people of all ages and races who denigrate music they have not taken the time to understand.

I am also keenly aware of the parallel yet different worlds that whites and blacks travel in when it comes to music. These worlds can be seen (and heard) on our fraternity row here at Dartmouth. There, one house prides itself on playing music night and day, positioning its speakers in such a way that the frat brothers take upon themselves the responsibility of setting the sonic ambiance for everyone who strolls down the street or occupies an adjacent building. Their musical selections are definitely old school: nothing later than 1990, and when I was on the street a few weeks ago, they were playing Glenn Miller. But it’s not difficult to understand that, as a good old boy (read: predominantly white) house, the fraternity may be given greater leeway than would an African-American house that also flooded the environment with music.

“Is it really true that all our reactions to sound are dictated by simple equations: loud, low sounds equal something powerful, so be scared or be prepared to mate; soft, little sounds equals something small, so be calm, be prepared to mate, or both?”

These fraternity brothers in Hanover, New Hampshire, like Davis and his friends in Jacksonville, Florida, altered the sonic spaces around them. Those alterations in turn affected the people who shared, either permanently or fleetingly, those environments. It should come as no surprise that not everyone appreciates such sonic alterations.

One response to such lack of appreciation would be to say: Get over it. It is true that, after a time, most of us will habituate to a continued sound source. Most of us pay no attention to the hum of the refrigerator in our kitchens or the ticking of old clocks in the corner. In a similar fashion, most of us can stop hearing some music if it is not so loud as to inflict physical pain and we have heard it long enough. Supermarket music and even the sonic blaze in Abercrombie & Fitch stores will cease to register after a time.

How long that time is, though, differs from person to person and is determined in part by how sensitized one is to certain sounds. Popular culture gives us a great example of these different responses in action.

The movie Silver Linings Playbook shows an extreme version of this phenomenon. A song is playing in a psychiatrist’s waiting room. Most people are oblivious to the song. But our protagonist physically destroys the space, because that song has particular resonance for him.

As outrageous as the scene may seem to some, its underlying message is unmistakable and true. Placing the burden of acclimation on the individual who doesn’t control the sonic environment intensifies power dynamics already in play and disempowers the unwilling recipient of the stimulus. Saturating an environment with sound is an expression of power and control; ignoring requests for turning the sound down or telling others that they have to get used to the saturation is simply a further assertion of power and control. Dunn sought power by asking Davis and his friends to turn the music down; they acquiesced at first but then reasserted their power by turning the music up again; Dunn attempted to re-establish his power by once again asking for the volume to be turned down. The deadly force Dunn then used, for whatever reason, was nothing but an extension of the power he sought to exert over Davis and his friends through the disempowerment he attempted by asking them to turn down their music.

Music is power. In his 2010 book on noise and silence, George Prochnik asked a series of provocative questions that began with this one: “Is it really true that all our reactions to sound are dictated by simple equations: loud, low sounds equal something powerful, so be scared or be prepared to mate; soft, little sounds equals something small, so be calm, be prepared to mate, or both?” It is objectively true that some of the popular music in our world today features loud and low sounds, and it is not a stretch to suggest that such music grants its listeners a sense of power and accomplishment. As one of my students who’s on our ski team told me, one reason why ski resorts make the hills alive with the sound of music is to give novice skiers the impression that they are better than they really are.

But this reliance on music to make us feel powerful not only is a flawed use of a potent stimulus. Like anabolic steroids, these “aural steroids” risk incapacitating us from using our hearing to its full and right potential. Saturating the street with Glenn Miller means that I cannot hear the crunch of feet on snow or, in warmer months, the piping of songbirds. It means that I have to enter into competition with this unbidden second-hand sound. It means that I might elect not to manufacture my own sound. It means that I am less likely to hear myself think. This sound pollution affects my life and, if Prochnik and others are to be believed, potentially reduces both my lifespan and the quality of my life.

Public nuisance and zoning laws are hamstrung in a world that is supersaturated with second-hand sound. What is needed instead is a greater awareness of how and when we are the perpetrators of such sound, be it from our cars when we drive around with the windows down or from our homes and offices where our choices of music—and the volume at which we play it—are imposed upon others without their express consent.

Lucia McBath, Davis’ mother, was recently interviewed by Ta-Nehisi Coates. McBath turned to Coates’ son, who was present throughout the interview, and said to him: “You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you.” I heartily concur with McBath about clothing choices and individual autonomy. I do not agree with her about music.

Steve Swayne
Steve Swayne, a contributor to The OpEd Project, is the Jacob H. Strauss 1922 Professor of Music and the music department chair at Dartmouth College. He has received fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition to his work at Dartmouth, he has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at the University of California-Berkeley.

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