Talk To The Hand As The Ears Are Definitely Not Listening
Posted on February 1, 2007 by Anita Roddick
On reading The Guardian newspaper recently I came across the below amusing article on the world’s worst sound. See if you agree with their findings – personally the fingers being dragged down a blackboard has always set my teeth on edge! Something a bit off-the-wall for a Monday!
World's worst sound? Take baked beans, a bucket and Saturday night The Guardian
A year-long quest to identify the worst sound in the world ended yesterday with top honours going to the backdrop of market town Britain on a Saturday night: a person vomiting. The sound, recreated for acoustics experts by an actor with a bucket of diluted baked beans, won out over fingers being dragged down a blackboard, a dentist's drill and wailing babies in an online study that attracted 1.1m votes from around the world.
Microphone feedback, crying babies and the scrapes and squeaks of a train on a track ranked second and joint third, with a cat howling and mobile phone ringtones coming joint 12th and snoring an unexpectedly low 26th.
The study, set up by Trevor Cox, a professor of acoustic engineering at Salford University, sought opinions on 34 sounds at the Bad Vibes website in the hope of learning what makes certain noises so objectionable.
"From a scientific perspective, we really don't understand why some sounds are so horrible, but our reactions are part of what makes us human. If, as engineers, we can learn what offends people then, in some cases, we may be able to engineer them out of existence or at least reduce their impact," he said.
The survey revealed a stark gender divide, with women voting 25 of the noises as more repellent than did men. Of the sounds men ranked as more distressing two were variations on babies crying.
"This may be because women play a role in protecting both themselves and their offspring from attack. It could be that females have become habituated to the sound of babies crying," Prof Cox said.
The researchers expected sounds that evoke disgust to be near the top of the list, such as vomiting, coughing and spitting, eating an apple with the mouth open and a lengthy blast from a whoopee cushion. Revulsion to such sounds is partly governed by culture and partly an evolutionary legacy that helps us avoid picking up diseases.
In general, horrible sounds became worse as people aged, but for some sounds the picture was more complex. The sound of eating an apple revolted people less as they aged. The sound of a dentist's drill ranked worst among the under-10s and those in their 40s to 50s. "These are the ages when you are most likely to experience the dentist's drill, so these people could well be more sensitive," said Prof Cox.
Some scientists have tried to explain widespread shudders at nails being dragged down a blackboard as a historical reflex to the similar-sounding screech made when monkeys alert others to impending danger. But the sound ranked 16th, between sniffing and polystyrene being scrunched, suggesting the noise has less effect than expected.