Tuesday 15 December 2009

Are the Spanish noisy?

By Richard Morley.

I was travelling on the metro and filling the idle moments by listening to a Spanish lesson on my MP3 Player. At least I was trying to. A young man next to me was also listening to something on his MP3 player and IT WAS SO BLOODY LOUD I could not clearly hear my own. So it was no surprise for me to read that the EU, worried about the damage we are doing to our ears by listening to music at high volume, is planning some form of guideline, possibly legislation, regarding just how loud these devices should be.

Steven Russell of the European consumer lobby ANEC said, “There are up ten million Europeans, mainly young people, who are at risk of losing their hearing permanently in the next five years due to their personal listening habits”. He went on to say, “Some of the players on the market at the moment are capable of generating a volume beyond 115 decibels. In the workplace health and safety regulations state that this is a dangerous level that no employee should be exposed to it for more than thirty seconds”.

A consultant at Portland Road Hospital in London, Dr. Robin Yeoh, has reported that many young people are showing up at his clinic with hearing loss. “Many of them have been exposed to recreational noise in clubs and discos, but certainly personal music players play quite a large part in this. Once you damage the nerves of your inner ear, that’s permanent, there’s no medication, no surgery, no therapy that is going to recover it”.

Incidentally, I love his description of disco music as “recreational noise”!

Experts are hoping that the EU will impose an allowed level of MP3 players and public music to 85 decibels.

But this leads me to ask this question: Can the Spanish live without noise?

The Friday evening English Speaking Group that I help run here in Madrid used to meet in a bar where the purpose of the evening was to improve conversational skills. However, the owner insisted that while we were talking he would have a pianist bash out music.

“Can’t you ask him to stop?” I asked the owner.
“Music brings people in to the bar”, he replied.
“But we are already filling your bar”, I stated (it was quite small), “and we want to talk and are finding difficult to do so over the noise”.
But the pianist was kept on. We left.

We found another place. As it happens it is a disco bar, but in the basement they are quite happy to turn the music off for our meetings. When the meeting is finished we do not leave, but stay on, buy more drink and continue with more informal chit-chat. We like to do that. But, as soon as they realise the meeting is over the bar staff turn up the music – and I mean TURN UP THE MUSIC.

Why? There’s just us, at least at the beginning, but I notice that when other customers arrive they sit in groups trying to talk and are, like us, HAVING TO SHOUT over the boom boom boom emanating from the four large speakers in what is not a large room.

I was in Molly Malone’s, one of Madrid’s ever burgeoning number of Irish bars, (the beer is Heineken or Guinness, neither to my taste, but I was with friends!) a few evenings ago. The “music” was turned up to painful and the general cacophony was added to by everyone having to shout at each other. I ordered a drink, the barman asked me to repeat what I said, I did and still he didn’t hear me. I repeated my order and he had to lean across the bar to hear me. I commented that he wouldn’t have that problem if they turned down the volume.

I couldn’t hear his reply.

I was worried that this preoccupation with noisy bars was a sign that I was getting old, but I have heard this complaint from lots of Spaniards who are much younger than me. (Most people are!) They tell me that it is just impossible to talk to friends properly while having a drink.

The great intercambio, that wonderful institution that allows the Spanish and guiris to exchange their respective languages, is almost impossible in many bars. You just end up shouting at each other. One student asked me to meet her in a bar after work for lessons. She soon realised it was a waste of time – and her money.

Last Saturday evening a few of us met to practise our Spanish (and I need that practise!) and we met in a café in Chueca. By the time we had finished our first drink we had decided to go elsewhere. We could hardly hear each other and with the added difficulty of speaking another language we soon realised what we were attempting was impracticable.

Surprisingly it didn’t take us long to find somewhere where we were able to talk at a normal level, although we did increase our own volume a little when we started to discuss nuclear power; a contentious issue for one of our number. We continued to converse and even though there was music, it was never intrusive. Other patrons were also having quiet conversation. No one was having to shout. Why can’t all bars be like that?

But on the way home some twit on the metro decided we should all have the pleasure of listening to the tinny noises that came from his mobile telephone.

I have often contemplated kitting myself out with something similar to a terrorist waistcoat, only instead of explosive I would have an MP3 player and some powered speakers and when some idiot felt the need to “entertain” his fellow passengers with his half a watt of distorted, squawking, cacophonous drivel, I would drown him out with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor or the Ride of the Valkyries – really loud. Yes, it would be just as anti-social, but much better quality, both in taste and sound.

But I doubt the Spanish could live with silence. Let’s admit it. They are a noisy bunch. Even in a cafe without music or a television showing a football match the general hubbub has to be several decibels higher that in any other European country. Someone once defined a Spanish conversation as six people all talking at the same time with none of them listening to the others. I have witnessed this with my own ears.

And don’t get me started on the glass rattling firework explosions that go off at three in the morning.

This is where a Spaniard would tell me, quite rightly, that if I don’t like it I should “go home”. As I said, quite rightly! Making noise is what they do. It defines one aspect of the Spanish character, that love of getting out of the house, meeting friends and shouting at each other, er, I mean, having a spirited conversation over a few beers. It’s a noise that says, “Hey, I like to be with you guys. But so we can talk, let’s be louder than that lot next to us”. In this respect, how can it be anti-social? It’s the very epitome of being sociable. And I won’t “go home” because I too, from time to time, have been part of that noisy rabble, because I feel included and they even put up with the terrible things I do to their language and because being shouted at over the noise means they want me hear what they have to say. It signifies, you are one of us.

Those times are fine when I want to be included. But I don’t want to have to fight against painful music levels in bars where I just want a quiet drink, I don’t want to hear the tish tish tish from the MP3 player of the guy next to me on the bus, I don’t want to have music played at me on the metro. And that includes the guy who plays the violin badly on line two!

And seriously, if levels of music, both personal and public, are so loud it causes physical disability, then I think something should be done about it. An argument of the anti-smoking lobby is that the staff in bars have a right to be protected from the supposed effects of second-hand smoke. If the volume of the music is above health and safety guidelines regarding noise in the workplace, then that should also be a consideration for bar owners.

If you disagree, let’s have a – quiet – conversation about it.

What do you think??


  1. We have one pub in our town that has no music, not a note. Its still quite noisy but with the hibbub of lively conversation. Music in pubs at a low lw=evel makes them feel more welcoming when theyre empty - who decided that people come out to a pub to listen to music and that the louder the sound of interaction and enjoyment the louder the sound of the music should be.
    Some time ago I played in my son in laws band - they were short of a guitarist n backing vocals. Our rig was too small for the venue so we patched it into a 6000 watt house PA. The monkey on the desk whacked it up full. Once we had finished the set my hearing was dull and I could heat a persistent hiss which took 3 days to disappear. This is the way your body protects your hearing but continual exposure damages the equipment beyond repair.
    Tip : if you need to hear someone speaking ()by shouting at you in a noisy bar)place your finger on the flap of flesh at the entrance to your ear and depress it. You can then get closer to your (shouting) friend without being deafened.

  2. I personally think the Spanish are very noisy people. If you are travelling out of Spain you immediately will identify the Spanish by the level of their conversations... It is part of our idiosincracy, we can not do anything to solve it...

  3. To "go home" may not be the solution either:


  4. It's not uncommon for a typical Spanish home to be flooded by the sounds of the neighbours' TVs. It's even mind killing because of the crazy late time schedules for the most watched programmes. For the ones of us who have to get up very early for work and do need to sleep at least 8 hours it's a real nuisance being Spanish.

  5. To my ears Spaniards are loud.
    Pubs are always loud and typically will be.

    Spanish old ladies seem to be the worst culprits - if you live in one of the blocks of apartments that have 'courtyard' for drying your clothes outside your windows, you hear them every morning shouting at each other and not listening (Spanish ladies call this chatting to each other) - it is NOISE!

    But on the other hand when I was in the UK, the reason to buy my iPod was because I was tired of listening to drivle that came out of the teenagers mouths when sitting on public transport - how hard they are, what drugs they do, how many prisons they have been in, their last fight...
    So to me the iPod was a lifesaver.

    Perhaps we are simply getting old Richard, perhaps!?

  6. Hello, guys. I don't really feel to be represented in the picture you all seem to have about Spaniards. I don't understand... You're Spanish, therefore you're a loud caveman? Mmmmm.

    Fortunate or unfortunately enough, I was born in Madrid, and I have to say I hate noise as much as you do, I agree with the fact that pubs tend to have a very loud music, and that those kids who enter the bus with whatever awful music pumping out of their cell phones are just slapable.

    But "Can the Spanish live without noise?" - What kind of question is that??? Do you really think the average citizen decides he/she lives better on an eternal fuss?

    I honestly think people usually get loud when they are in groups - and this is not something related to a determined nationality. Think of a teenage rabble in Cairo, an English football crowd, a big family reunion (I remember living door-to-door to an Indian family in London and oh boy they were looooud. Does that mean all Indians are? Ppfff)...

    I don't know - I just don't like generalizations. :P Have a great Christmas break!

  7. I've come to the conclusion that many Spanish people are actually incredibly quietly spoken- it's just that it's very difficult to hear them because those that aren't, more than make up for them!

  8. Lived in Spain for eight years, married an Andalusian woman, love the place, hate the noise. My Spanish relatives soon learned that I wouldn't shout or interrupt in conversations with them and started doing the same. It was funny to watch the light come on with them -- gee, we can talk to this guy and finish a sentence!