Things have been pretty crazy here at The Department of Any Second Now I Expect Flaming Remnants Of A Rocket Engine To Come Screaming Down Out Of The Stratosphere And Land On My Head Or Worse Yet, My Tesla. Not surprisingly then, like everything else in my life these days, this column is late. Flaming rocket engine debris aside however, I’ve been feeling the need to fill you in on the worst sounds in the world, because I think I’ve heard a pretty fair number of them.
I came up with my own classification for these sounds and drawing from a pretty much bottomless wellspring of creativity, here is my classification: Type I and Type II.
I decided a long time ago that there are certain types of sounds that just don’t sit well with the human nervous system, or probably any kind of nervous system, for that matter. These would be my Type I sounds. My prototype for Type I is the sound of a metal lawn rake scraping across a stone patio.
When I was a kid, we had two gigantic chestnut trees flanking a large flagstone patio, and I had to rake the chestnut leaves off that patio. And that was just the beginning, or the ending depending on how you want to look at it. I also had to rake the little blossoms in the spring, followed by the little green chestnuts that were jettisoned later in the spring, followed by the big chestnuts early in the fall (and their stems!), followed by the leaves in late fall. Not that I’m bitter.
Anyway, for some reason, the sound of that rake scraping on the stone would go right into my brain, down my spinal cord and turn me into a quivering mass of jelly.
Turns out that in 2012, neuroscientists at the University of Newcastle came to a scientific conclusion about what I call Type I sounds. They found that there was a direct correlation between the degree of unpleasantness of various sounds heard by test subjects-most of them human- and the extent of the reaction of the amygdalas and auditory cortexes of the test subjects. These amygdalas and cortexes were conveniently located in the brains of the subjects. (I was going to use amygdalae and cortices but I thought that would sound too pompous.) The amygdala has something to do with emotion. For example, you feel sheepish or maybe depressed if you mispronounce “amygdala” in a job interview.
Long story short, the neuroscientists determined that these sounds were in the range of 2000 to 5000 Hz. Hz stands for Hertz in honor of Heinrich Rudolph Hertz, the founder of Hertz Car Rental, since you asked.
Actually, I’m lying. Heinrich Rudolph Hertz proved that electromagnetic waves exist. He also invented dry cleaning. But note that Hz is synonymous with CPS or cycles per second, a unit of frequency also used to measure how many bicycles were sold after the invention of two-wheeled bicycles by German inventor Karl von Drais, in 1817. CPS could also stand for Clogged Pore Society but this is unlikely.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. These neuroscientists aren’t actually sure what’s so special about that range of frequencies. Dr. Kumar, who was one of the researchers, explains: “This is the frequency range where our ears are most sensitive. Although there’s still much debate as to why our ears are most sensitive in this range, it does include sounds of screams which we find intrinsically unpleasant.”
Here is the list of their top ten Type I sounds (out of a total of 74 sounds):
- Knife on a bottle
- Fork on a glass
- Chalk on a blackboard
- Ruler on a bottle
- Nails on a blackboard
- Female scream
- Brakes on a cycle squealing
- Baby crying
- Electric drill
I don’t know if they checked out my “rake on flagstones” sound. They definitely should’ve. I also wonder what kind of baby was crying. A baby velociraptor maybe? Sadly though, I don’t have any other Type I sounds of my own to add to their list.
Wait! Wait! Wait! Yes I do. The Vuvuzela.
Any of you who hail from South Africa know that the Vuvuzela is also known by its Twsana name Lepatala, which means “extremely annoying plastic horn which makes a noise like a goose honking into a megaphone while it is being strangled”.
The Vuvuzela is so annoying that it has been banned by almost every civilization in the Galaxy, along with that music tape-loop played by ice cream trucks that frequent the streets of Calgary. That tape-loop caused me to seriously consider buying a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher. Instead I bought a Vuvuzela and began blowing it in the ear of the driver of the truck when it came through our neighborhood every day of summer, ten times a day. Not that I’m any more bitter about this than I am about the leaves. Note: I might be lying about some of this. But not all of it. Also note: summer only lasts about three days in Calgary, on average.
Enough about Type I sounds! What about Type II sounds?
Type II sounds are the type of sounds that immediately signal that something really bad is happening, or just happened. A typical example would be when you and your cousin are scuffling vigorously in his bedroom long after the two of you are supposed to be sound asleep. A container of baby powder might be involved. Suddenly a thunderous crash erupts, caused by one of you kicking the dresser. To your uncle, that thunderous crash is definitely a Type II sound. He comes barrelling upstairs, throws open the door and bellows, “What in hell was that noise?”
One of you meekly asks, “What noise?”
The other postulates: “Mice?”
Your uncle tells you to go to bed, enumerating what will happen if he hears that noise again. This might include being skinned alive and boiled in oil, or worse yet, having to sleep in separate bedrooms. He stomps downstairs where muffled laughter ensues from all the adults.
So I think we’re clear on the difference between Type I and Type II sounds. Type I sounds are Neurological/Hardwired and Type II sounds are Situational/Generally Ominous.
But this column is starting to run a little long, so go eat some of your kids Hallowe’en candy and stay tuned for Part II.
Why are you still reading? Go! And don’t even think about getting into the baby powder the next time you sleep over at cousin’s house. Your uncle (or your aunt) hid it (the baby powder) already. Along with the knives, the forks, both anglegrinders and the chalkboard.
Next column: The Worst Sounds In The World: Part II
J Acoust Soc Am. 2008 Dec;124(6):3810-7.doi:10.1121/1.3006380. Mapping unpleasantness of sounds to their auditory representation. Kumar S, Forster HM, Bailey P, Griffiths TD.