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Many years ago I read a story about a musician who plays an instrument (clarinet?) in an orchestra -- but the world is so noisy that everyone's hearing has atrophied. Audiences attend concerts at which they watch machines that register pitches as the music plays. The protagonist barricades himself in a padded room until his sense of hearing returns. However, when he emerges, the blast of sound drives him back into the sound-proofed room.

He then invents a machine that will display pitches but requires no musicians. The hero thinks this will convince people to reduce the world's noise so that they can hear again. The plan fails, however.

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    How long ago is "many years"?
    – Valorum
    Apr 17, 2018 at 19:27
  • Do you recall the format in which the story was presented (magazine/digest, anthology, found on web, etc.)? Where you encountered the story? (for instance, in a class, a library, a book you borrowed from a friend?) In addition to how long ago you read the story, any feel for how old it was then? (for instance, if you read it in a magazine/digest, was that new, or relatively so when you read it?) What language did you read it in? Do you know if that was the same language it was written in?
    – RDFozz
    Apr 17, 2018 at 19:39

1 Answer 1

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This is "Silence" (1965) by J. Hunter Holly, published only in Fantastic Stories of Imagination, June 1965. You can read the story at the Internet Archive.

a musician who plays an instrument (clarinet?) in an orchestra

He had climbed from bed early and spent his three hours of practice before breakfast. Then he had put his clarinet aside because it wasn't good to practice too long on the day of a concert.

the world is so noisy that everyone's hearing has atrophied.

He stood up and away from Pru. "I can't help it. I've read about sound. I've studied it, and I've got to find out what sound was — why we don’t have it now."

Audiences attend concerts at which they watch machines that register pitches as the music plays.

"Perhaps so, but I attended the concert last week and no other word will do. When you opened with that Clarinet solo in Rhapsody in Blue—I tell you, Tom, I've seen a lot of others play that, but you were something special. The needle—it was a sight I'll never forget. It thrilled and vibrated, and then swept up and over, and melted there, edging on up like sticky honey. Wonderful! Wonderful. I still get gooseflesh, just remembering. I'm going to throw away my tape of the Chicago Symphony and wait for someone to have the sense to make one of yours."

Tom walked over to Harry's Music Meter. It stood in the most prominent place in the room, the tape cabinet beside it. "A new one?" he faced Harry so the doctor could see the question on his lips.

The protagonist barricades himself in a padded room until his sense of hearing returns.

Materials for sound-proofing. The clerk didn’t understand, but Vreney knew he didn’t have to understand, just thankful that the materials were still in everyday use although their purpose had long been lost. He would build a sound-proofed room, he would devise ear-covers to shut out every chance of noise, and then he would seclude himself.

However, when he emerges, the blast of sound drives him back into the sound-proofed room.

He opened his door, wanting to go out and find another human being. But the crash of noise that met him hit him like a fist, blasting in his head. Nothing was distinguishable. It was just a constant cannonade, one shriek piled on top of another, and now he understood the deafness of the time. No baby born with normal ears could ever cope with this. A baby would lose its sense of hearing before it was old enough to remember it had ever possessed it.

He slammed the door and shut the noise away. He couldn't go out in it and take the chance of having his ears refuse him again.

He then invents a machine that will display pitches but requires no musicians. The hero thinks this will convince people to reduce the world's noise so that they can hear again.

If he could prove that the musician was not truly an artist—that a machine could do just as well, say—then they would take notice.

And the proof wasn't difficult to plan or to build. A machine loaded with buttons, made from Marcy's many household gadgets; a machine that punched its own buttons at random; a machine that punched buttons that activated and fluctuated three needles. He had it!

He tested it, watching it vibrate the needles and pulse the light in meaningless patterns. It was so far from the tones he had been hearing that he wanted to laugh. People would laugh at it, be insulted by it, and do something.

The plan fails, however.

The words traveled on, but Vreney turned away, shaking, white. The Vreney Music Maker! The random-button-machine that was to have saved the sound of the world, to save music. It hadn't saved music. It had done away with it!

He threw up his hands, and there in the crowd of excited people, he opened his throat and screamed his despair—desperately aware that he was the only one who could hear it.

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