What is That Creaking Sound?

For those of us that grew up in older homes there is a sound that has likely been so deeply ingrained in your nostalgic soundscape that you may not even know it’s there…until you hear it out of context.

It’s 11:30pm on a Thursday. I am just getting back from a night out with some friends. The kids are asleep as is my wife. I slide the key into the lock. The subtle mechanical clicking rolls off the tumbler and into the interior. A gentle sound. I quietly open the door and glide into the mud room. I promised I’d be quiet. I slip my shoes off with as much grace as a dog with a rawhide bone. I wait for a moment and listen. No one has stirred. The house is silent, save for the gentle whirring and murmurs that an old house mutters to itself in the evening. This is going well, I think to myself. I move up the stairs. It’s getting dry in our house as winter approaches, the wooden stairs protest under the pressure. They let out an atonal snap and crack. I pause and listen. Still quiet. At the top of the stairs we have a baby gate. The kids don’t need it anymore, but we still enjoy the frustration of fiddling with its terrible latching system, so we leave it there. I manage to negotiate a quiet passage through the gate and then…

The Creak.

Nothing subtle about this sound. Its perfectly bent pitch echoes through the house. I pause, but its too late. The oscillation has started and nothing will stop this musical phrase from completing. With each step, a new note is added to the melody , building up to the crescendo that confirms my utter failure at remaining quiet; the creak of our bed as my wife rolls over. Damn.

This is a common occurrence for me. Almost every time I go upstairs in our house the floor decides to start a conversation with me. The tone of voice that the house uses changes depending on the season, but generally, it’s tonal, it’s loud, and it’s probably something I will never deal with.

The creaking sounds that emanate from an older house can come from any number of sources. Sometimes it’s the walls, sometimes it’s the windows. It may be the old furnace or, if you have radiant heating, it may be the metal as its expands and contracts.

A Fix.

In our house, it’s the floors. This is an example of natural audio feedback. The house is telling us that there is an issue with the mechanical coupling of the floor and subfloor at roughly the point where I placed my foot. This is relatively easy to fix. One quick way to address the issue is to find the creak and drive some screws through the floor into the sub floor. Essentially re-coupling the two planes. Then you can put carpet over top to enhance the sound dampening even more. Our house is almost a hundred years old and it has the orignal hardwood floors. I am hesitant about drilling holes in it.

It’s a challenge balancing the anthropologist in me with the sound obsessive in me. After all, these floors have told this story for decades. These creaks that we hear have been bending the ear of the inhabitants of this house for generations. If I could tell you the stories of each late night creak, I would. I’m sure there would be some real gems to be shared. Besides, who am I to stifle this rich nostalgic audio experience for my children.

The sounds in our natural environment eventually fall away into our subconscious. Until that point, however, those sounds can cause serious anxiety and frustration. Depending on where you grew up and what your environment was, moving into a new house can be both an exciting and anxious time.

I grew up in a very quiet house. My way of operating was generally a quiet one (of course this is my recollection, asking my siblings may lead to a very different story). My point is that I grew up being very sensitive to sound. Hotels or sleepovers were often sleepless nights with hours of deep listening. Headphones saved my life. But thats a story for another article. For this story is about my personal soundscape. My home.

I Don’t Even Hear it Anymore.

When my wife and I were looking to buy our first home together we each had very different criteria. Most people will have a list of ‘must haves’. My wife wanted us near a good school, close to public transit, a lively community of people. Unfortunately, I had a counter list. A good school nearby meant the sound of children screaming and yelling. The proximity to public transit meant the low rumblings of a subway or the dinging of streetcars. The lively community meant people talking at various times just outside our door. Oh, and absolutely no shared walls. This was going to prove difficult.

That was almost 6 years ago. We live across the street from a school in a semi-detached house, blocks away from the street car stop, and yes, there are always people out on the street chatting. But those sounds have faded away into my subconscious. I still hear them when I choose to focus on them, but they don’t cause me any anxiety. These sounds have actually bolstered my self awarness in my environment. They are like handholds for my ears. A way to remind myself exactly where I am. I am safe. This is a safe soundscape.

The Flip Side.

For my ‘safe’ soundscape, there are plenty that are interpreted as unsafe. These are cues to be on guard and have served us humans since time immemorial. From the hiss of a snake to low growl of a large animal, we are tuned to react. The anxiety we feel is not for nothing. It serves to prepare our fight or flight instinct. If something sounds off, then perhaps it is.

A really sad thing happens when someone grows up in a soundscape that feels unsafe. They get used to it. The sounds that they deem unsafe become deeply rooted in their experince of the world. To touch back on my experience of hotels or sleepovers, when I hear the murmurs of people talking in the next room, I get filled with anxiety. This could have been casued by listening to people argueing or fighting through walls as a child but to this day, I can not stand hearing people talking while I’m trying to fall asleep. On the flipside, my brother-in-law tells me he loves hearing that sound. He says its comforting. Soundscapes therefore are highly subjective. My house is my soundscape, your house, yours.

Don’t you hear that?

Can you recall the first sounds you heard when moving into your new apartment or house? I am perhaps a little more sensitive than your average listener but I can remember almost all of them. When I was nineteen, I moved out of my family home. It was the first time I had lived on my own. I rented a semidetached house and had the whole thing to myself. This was amazing. I remember laying in bed and letting the sounds slowly come into focus. For whatever reason, my ears go into hyper drive while I’m trying to fall asleep. This makes sense, I suppose. Our other senses are calming down and we have little stimulation. However, we have no eyelids on our ears (except headphones, another article). At first I didn’t even hear my neighbors. They were a family with kids and at that point I was not. We had almost completely inverted schedules.

The first sounds that I noticed were the obvious ones. The furnace, the street traffic, I even started to notice the water heater clicking on. I became very attuned to the sounds in the house. After a while I started to hear past these initial sounds and miniature compositions started to reveal themselves. After the furnace would ignite, the fan would kick on and the house would bulge under the increased pressure. As the house warmed I could hear the wood subtly creaking as it expanded. As the water heater warmed the water, the pipes would gently knock and click. The traffic outside evolved from simply hearing moving cars to noticing that certain neighbours were returning at certain times, this was a large vehicle, this was a small car. A chorus, a bridge, a call, a response. The sounds started to take on a life of thier own. Each one representing a system that was functioning long before I had arrived. I began to wonder what the house sounded like fiftey years ago. What sounds were more prominent, what were the unexpected sounds?

What Did It Actually Sound Like?

Sounds are more than their captured representations. Sound exists only in the ear of the listener. If there is no medium with which the air pressure changes are to react upon then there is no sound, or better, there is no experience of the sound. Our bodies are always reacting to sound, whether we are awake, asleep, or even unable to hear at all. The pressure changes are still propagating through our atmosphere and invaraibly bouncing off boundaries. But sound is far more complex than just air molecules being compressed and rarefied. When sound enters our brain and gets processed as an experience, it gets loaded with preconceived notions and experiences, expectations. For me, the sound of people talking in the next room while I’m trying to sleep may be a distraction, but there is no need for me to feel unsafe. This feeling of ‘unsafe’ was programmed in me from an early age and now its part of my experience. Like Pavlov’s dog, the moment I hear those voices, I begin to regress. Does this change the actual sound? No. It changes my perception of the sound. A person who has been held up at gun point will react very differently to the sound of a cocking gun than, say, a 15 year who plays Grand Theft Auto on a regular basis. Same sound, a world of difference.

The reason I bring this up is more for me than you. I am telling myself to listen to the world with fresh ears. I try to detach the notions that I have about a sound I hear and actually listen to it. How does it make me feel? Why? And what is actually going on. Sound has the ability to trigger us. It’s why music is so powerful. It has an emotional connection unlike the other senses. It’s temporal. It can only be experienced in the moment. How we remember sound is different from how we remember images. We associate sound with a point in time and time is limited, and therefore priceless. Our experience of sound is therefore limited and priceless.

The sounds of a house are neither good nor bad, they just are. Most of the sounds I expereince in my house are a result of my interacting with the house. The doors, the locks, the windows…the floors. The more I engage my environment, the more the house speaks to me. I have learned the nuances of this duet, where to step and where to dance.

Its getting late now. I want you to imagine the sound of a laptop gently closing, the muted slap echoes through the quiet house. I will walk up the stairs and prepare myself for the conversation that awaits in the floor boards.

What are the sounds from your home that make your soundscape unique? I’d love to know, post in the comments below!