Earlier this month, a kind of chirping, rainforest-y sound sprung up in my apartment. It came from my roommate’s room. At first, I took it for a video game, but then realized the sound materialized even when my roommate was asleep. For days, I wondered about this. At any point I could’ve asked him what the deal was, but I kept on forgetting—the sound was just annoying enough to be notable but not annoying enough to do something about. When I did remember to ask him, during one of the sound’s occasional disappearances, he had no idea what I was talking about.
The sound to that point had been a subconscious irritant—by the time I noticed it, I could never say how long it had been going for. But after that exchange, and the sanity-questioning it entailed, roughly half my brain was looking out for the sound’s return. When it did finally reemerge, I burst without knocking into my roommate’s room. “That,” I said. “Oh,” he replied. “The radiator?”
It was, in fact, the radiator. He hadn’t noticed it.
This is all to say that, when we are speaking about sounds, “annoying” is a subjective criteria. But there must be, one figures, some consensus on the subject. For this week’s Giz Asks we reached out to a number of sound-experts to find out what that might be.
Associate professor Auditory Cognition, University of Groningen
The sound of vomiting: elicits a visceral response. The first steps of auditory processing are in the brainstem close to the “disgust” center that is activated when we swallow(ed) something toxic and which activates the muscles to expel it.
It’s actually pretty simple. In the evolution of vertebrates, the first vertebrate was basically a long tube with on one side the mouth and on the other side the anus. And the only thing that it really had to do was to open its mouth, accept something as food and then digest in that tube. The tube was basically a little garden with all kinds of bacteria. It should not make a real mistake because then it would poison the garden and poison itself. So it was very important for that early vertebrate to make the proper decisions — what to swallow, what not to swallow. That is the reason why all our senses are around the mouth. We taste, we smell, we hear, we see — all around the mouth — so we can make the best decisions of what to eat.
All the sensors came together at the top of the neural tube. That is our brain stem. That is the level where all the information is processed at the most basic level. That leads to a situation that if you have no time to process the signal in full or to use your higher mental faculties, then you fall back to the lowest form of processing that we have, which is that physiological, low-level form of processing. This is always active in the background, and it has to be overruled by higher levels of processing. But it is always the first response that we get because it’s the quickest.
Pretty much all the other sounds are sounds that are relevant to higher cognition. So the scraping of fingernails on the chalkboard probably also has a visceral component, but it’s much further away from our basic responses than vomiting. A baby crying does not make sense for all mammals; it only makes sense for mammals that have babies that actually cry. This is a higher level, more advanced type of processing. And it must be very strong, but it is not as deeply encoded in our body as the response to vomiting.
Professor, Acoustic Engineering, University of Salford
People’s responses to sounds are learned; what’s most annoying to any given person can be highly individualized, and is intimately connected to circumstance. In general, though, the most annoying sounds are those that get in the way of whatever you’re trying to do. With everyone working at home right now, a neighbor’s DIY drilling might be the most annoying sound.
What can heighten annoyance is a lack of control. When your neighbors are throwing a party, the noise is annoying not only because it prevents you from sleeping but because you have no idea when it’s going to end. If you knew in advance when the party might end, the sound would likely be less disruptive.
Assistant Professor, Audio Arts and Acoustics, Columbia College Chicago
The most annoying sound for a human, as we all know, is the sound of chalkboard scraping. It’s terrible! Precisely why that is so remains a bit of a mystery and—I kid you not—the subject of ongoing psychoacoustic research. Even thinking about it (the sound, not the research) makes me cringe. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought back to the forefront many traditional contenders for the title of “most annoying sound.” Depending on your living circumstances, the sounds of your otherwise respected neighbors or housemates, for example, may well be much more annoying to you now than they were nine months ago.
The “most annoying sound for a human” is a surprisingly evasive concept that depends not only on who the human in question is, but also on that person’s circumstances and emotional state. If you think about it, this is a trivial truth only in a superficial sense. Rather, I think of it as a beautiful testimony to the raw emotional power that sound commands over us—not only on the negative end of the spectrum, but also with regards to that most beautiful of sounds: music. Many of the above truisms apply just as well to music—its dependence on the listener’s personal preferences or aversions, stage in life, current emotions, etc. In other words, the same strong reliance on context explains both the “ugliest” as well as the “prettiest” sounds. In my mind this shows that these are really just two manifestations of a larger underlying natural beauty, which we humans can become a part of and nurture (through music, for example), but which ultimately exceeds the value judgements that we can’t quite seem to be able to do without.
A large part of my creative practice and research unfolds in the realm of experimental music and sound art. From this experience I can assert that one human’s “most annoying sound” may well form the basis of another’s most precious music. Perhaps once a Covid-19 vaccine is widely available, you might want to attend an experimental music concert near you, to see which of these two groups you belong to... or whether there is room in between. British composer Trevor Wishart, for example, created a stunningly complex and highly recommended piece of music entitled “Imago” from a single clink of two glasses.
Founder of Orfield Laboratories which provides multi-sensory design, research and testing in architecture, product development and forensics
In 1990, I moved my perceptual laboratory into the former Sound 80 Studios. Sound 80 was a client of mine for acoustic and lighting consulting, and in 1975, in collaboration with 3M who had just invented multi-track digital recording, they became the World’s First Digital Recording Studio, as recognized by Guinness World Records in 2006. During their time as a client of mine, I sat in that last American album recording of Cat Stevens, Izatso.
I bought the studio to move my company but also to deal with a health issue.
I had just gone through surgery to get an artificial valve, as I was born with a defective aortic valve. I had read the acoustic studies in the medical journals about the noise levels, but when I woke up from surgery, I found that the valve was much louder than claimed in the academic studies. So as I went back to my lab, I measured the sound with an accelerometer (vibration transducer), and with a 1” precision microphone, and I recorded each. Then I did a listening experiment to listen to my heart valve with one ear and the recordings with the other. I spent hours equalizing the sound so that the recording was a close facsimile of what I heard.
Then I did a Stevens Threshold test to see how loud it was. This was done by playing a pink noise track until it was so loud that I couldn’t hear the valve, and then playing the pink noise again from loud to soft until I could hear it. Those two extremes established the threshold for my hearing of my valve.
While it was claimed to be about 30 dBA, it was actually able to be perceived into the low 80 dBA range, about 16 times as loud as claimed, and it sounded like I had been implanted with an old mechanical clock.
I went back and reviewed the journal literature again and found out that most of the measurement procedures used by the industry were incorrect, and most of the equipment used was not used correctly. It took me two years to learn to sleep after sleep hypnosis, sleep medicines and special pillows and fans. I was so frustrated that I invited all the American heart valve companies to join me in a conference at my Lab, so that I could show the levels of mistakes they all made, and so that they could start to work on the terribly annoying sound. In 1993, for the first and only time they ever met together the entire industry came to my lab and listened to what heart valve noise really sounded like. They were all shocked and concerned, and many were in violation of FDA requirements because they had been claiming quiet valves.
This meeting caused new research on porcine (pig) valved to extend the valve life from 5 years to 20 years, and now most implants get a bio-prosthetic valve, that can be implanted through an artery and can be repaired in the same way. I hope that my work with them was helpful in causing a reconsideration of heart valves across the entire industry. It also lead to a Medical article in the Wall Street Journal, where their editor explained to me that many ‘facts’ that he was told in interviews with doctors were false, as they were very defensive about discussing medical problems.
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Additional reporting by Marina Galperina.