Celebrating Joyful Noise

The concept of joyful noise has existed in every culture throughout history. With so much sound in our world today, it’s worth asking the question: what is noise, and how can it be joyful?

What Is Noise?

Most people differentiate between noise and sound, even if they don’t actually think about it that way. Noise is considered unpleasant, whereas sound is either neutral or positive. For example, radio static is noise and rain is a sound. We often think that noise has to be loud, but what about an annoying buzz from a nearby clock? That can be noisy. Or the bone-shaking power of a thunderclap? Many people would call that a sound instead of a noise.

In general, it seems to be all about the effect a given audio event has on the listener’s emotions. Noise makes people tense, uneasy, scared, or even angry. Sound tends to make people calm, relaxed, happy, or inspired. So where do we get joyful noise? That sounds like an oxymoron.

Poetic License

People who write holy books like to make them poetic so they will be remembered longer and have a greater impact on the reader. Writing ‘make happy sounds’ is not as regal as saying ‘make a joyful noise’. Remember also that most holy writings were not created in English, so there’s the matter of translation. Add to that the sound of the words themselves–ancient writings were often created for a population that was largely illiterate, so the sounds of the words were also important (thus the poetic part). “Joyful noise” is fun to say, and the sounds of the words themselves feels good. Say that phrase out loud right now. How does it feel?

Okay, enough techno speak. Let’s talk about what joyful noise is. Here’s a very small list of things that could readily be called joyful noises:

  • Laughter
  • Music/singing
  • Happy animal sounds
  • A cheering crowd (you can tell the difference if they’re happy or upset, right?
  • The goofy sounds we make in the throes of passion
  • “Oooh” and “aaah” for things like fireworks displays
  • Saying hello/goodbye to a friend or loved one

Joyful noise doesn’t have to be loud, either. Here are some quietly joyful noises:

  • A lullaby
  • “Sweet nothings” (usually whispered)
  • Familiar sounds, like a comfy old rocking chair
  • Rituals or ceremonies, such as a wedding
  • Soft sounds we find joy in–rain, breeze, cat purring, etc.

Most holy texts are referring to music when they talk about joyful noise, that music being a vehicle to guide worship. That’s great, but I think the lesson should be expanded. We should listen for and try to make all the joyful noise we can.

Finding Joyful Noise

We live in a noisy world. It seems as if everything is getting louder all the time–more people doing more things with less regard for the impact they make on others. There are even those who seem to find joy in making as much noise as possible. In such a cacophony, joyful noises can easily become buried under a mountain of other noises. That means we have to listen better, and also do our part to decrease the background noise when we can. Simply making joyful noises louder will not work–it creates a feedback loop where the non-joyful noises become even louder, and so on until everyone is deaf.

Improve The Ratio

In audio, there’s a thing called a signal-to-noise ratio. It defines how much of an audio source is the sound you want and how much is noise that you don’t want. For our purposes, we could call it the joy-to-not-joyous ratio. If everything gets louder, the ratio stays the same. What we need to do is improve the ratio. How do we do that?

Focus — Don’t create noise for the sake of background. If you want something making a sound, be purposeful about it. You may find this also helps improve your concentration.

Listen — Be aware of the sounds around you. This is an acquired skill, as most people are so visually oriented they barely register their auditory inputs. The better you get at this, the noisier you will find the world to be. Which leads to…

Turn it down — Monitor and adjust the volume of whatever is making noise so it’s appropriate.

Look for the joy — You will always find what you look for. If you search for annoying noise, you’ll find it. If you focus on hearing things that are pleasant, you’ll find those. This can help you from feeling overwhelmed in such a noisy world as ours.

The Most Joyful Noise of All

There’s one more noise we haven’t covered yet, that’s because most people don’t think of it that way: Silence.

When you see a beautiful sunset, or look at a mountain, or walk through the forest, or gaze into a loved one’s eyes, many times the sound you are inspired to make is no sound at all. In fact, you may feel compelled to be as quiet as possible to preserve the grandeur that you are feeling in the moment. That, too, is a joyful noise.

Try this: listen and discover how many joyful noises you hear (and make) during the coming week. Make a list if you can. For bonus points, try making a list of joyful noises outside what you experienced and then plan an audio scavenger hunt to seek them out. Make it an adventure!

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