Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sounding off

This story about the world's worst sound is all over the Internet, but nobody seems to be commenting on the first thing I noticed when I read the story. Look at the list of the world's ten worst sounds:

1. Vomiting
2. Microphone feedback
3. Wailing babies
4. Train scraping on tracks
5. Squeaky seesaw
6. Poorly played violin
7. Whoopee cushion
8. Argument in a soap opera
9. Mains hum
10. Tasmanian devil

Did you notice it?

Look at number seven. Whoopee cushion, it says.

Whoopee cushion? WHOOPEE CUSHION? Scientists are not supposed to sacrifice accuracy for modesty! Scientists are not supposed to be coy! Number seven should read:


Or, if they wanted to sound more academic and use a bigger word,


But then I found another problem. When I listened specifically to the whoopie cushion (yes, it's spelt differently on this page) on the mixer page for the experiment, I discovered that it doesn't even SOUND like a whoopee cushion, at least none I've ever heard. (And yes, I have heard a few.) Whoopee cushions are supposed to sound like FARTS. That is the whole POINT of whoopee cushions. That is the most pathetic, unfartlike whoopee cushion I have ever heard, and if I bought one that sounded like that I would want my money back.

A more accurate sound might have caused different results (as well as making the test more entertaining). Were the experimenters so disgusted by the sound of the real thing they could not bear to record it?

I am going to be rather disgusting myself here for a moment, so avert your eyes from the next paragraph if you are of a delicate constitution.

When I listened to the sounds on the test, I noticed that the sounds I found the most horrible were the ones that involved some sort of liquid, bubbling, human (or at least biological) noise. The vomiting one was the worst, followed by the eating-with-mouth-open one, for me. It occurs to me that if they'd recorded the sound of a really bad bout of diarrhea (you know the kind I mean, the spitting, explosive sort caused by a dreadful seafood mistake, or a bad curry) with a bit of moaning and grunting thrown in, then the results might have been very different.

(Disgusting bit finished.)

I think the test designers were suffering from an excess of gentility, or perhaps a lifetime of fortunate food experiences.

I also think the experiment (which you can try for yourself here) is flawed, because how I react to most of these sounds depends almost entirely on context. I can imagine being terrified witless at hearing a guttural grunting noise IF I happened to be alone in a flimsy tent in the wilderness somewhere at night. However, if I heard it from my home in suburban Japan, I would be more likely to assume that some drunken sarariman was reliving his karaoke triumphs on his way home and started off in too low a key. Similarly, hearing the squeak of unoiled hinges would be terrifically annoying if I had to listen to it all day, and might be frightening if I were in a horror movie-type house at night with the lights out, but most of the time it doesn't bother me. The sound of a baby crying is generally not a problem, but can become incredibly irritating or upsetting if it goes on for too long, or in other circumstances which I'm sure everybody is capable of imagining. (And sometimes the sound of a baby not crying is worse.)

This makes ranking the sounds extremely difficult. I think the sound of someone vomiting won the battle for most horrible sound not because it is, exactly, but because it is distressing in every context. It is horrible when it is coming from you, it is horrible when it is coming from someone you love, and it is horrible when it is coming from a complete stranger. It is a sound that signals distress and emergency one hundred percent of the time.

But actually (and I sort of hope nobody is still reading at this point) I suspect the thing that bothered me the most about this study was the disturbing suspicion that I am personally capable of producing sounds that are considerably more horrible than any the experimenters came up with.

I do hope it's not just me.


Ms Mac said...

I wonder if they could break down the vomiting noise into what it is that people dislike the most. Is it the retching or the vomit hitting the water in the toilet that people hate the most? Or perhaps the vomit hitting the footpath on the way home from a big night out.

I wouldn't know of course because I never vomit drunkenly or fart, belch or any of the other disgusting noises which came top of the poll!

And what does a Tasmanian Devil sound like, anyway?

Ed Reif said...

Land of the rising fun--- Hay wish I was there again, teaching like you
Keep it going Kiwi.
Nice blog!

I know, you being a Professor would like this article on Steven Pinker:

Radioactive Jam said...

Context makes the difference. Definitely, context cuts the... mustard.

And a bad i.e. not fartlike whoopee cushion would rank much higher on my list.

tinyhands said...

'Whoopie' cushion is a misnomer to begin with, especially if you've ever seen The Newlywed Game (60s-70s American TV).

But I really hope to use "dreadful seafood mistake" in conversation soon.

kenju said...

Assume for a moment that you are standing in line at the bank, or in a store, with at least 2-3 other people, and you fart a huge, long, loud rat-a-tat-tat fart. Isn't that the worst sound in the world - at least at that moment?

It sure would be for me....LO(worst smell too, no doubt)

pkchukiss said...

I gas silently, making me probably the worst chemical terrorist in any confined area. Silent, deadly.

Badaunt said...

Ms. Mac: Of course I never expected YOU to have made ANY disgusting noises. EVER. The very thought!

And I don't know what a Tasmanian Devil sounds like either. It seems an odd one for them to have chosen, doesn't it?

RaJ: An UNfart-like whoopee cushion?

... Oh, I see. It's a bad sound BECAUSE it doesn't sound like a fart. Ha. I bet they never thought of THAT when they were designing the test.

Tinyhands: Do you REALLY want to use that phrase? Not in relation to yourself, I hope. Dreadful seafood mistakes are ... well, dreadful.

Kenju: See? Context! And of course it has to SOUND like a fart. And try doing one of those in front of a class. Hopefully you'll never see your line of strangers at the bank again, but you have to face the class again next week! (Although I suppose it's one way to get them to pay attention.)

Pkchukiss: Ah, yes. Sometimes the sound of silence is the worst sound of all.