FAIRBANKS – A friend of mine hates the sound of a baby crying so much he will change his table at a restaurant just to get away from the annoying sound.
I don’t mind crying babies at all. I even get warm, fuzzy feelings because I associate the crying baby with my own children when they also were crying babies.
We all hear sounds we find extremely annoying. The usual example is a chalk scraping on a blackboard.
That sound isn’t the worst, according to research by Sukhbinder Kumar of Newcastle University Medical School and his colleagues, in an article published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (December 2008).
What is the winner for “most annoying sound”? Scraping a knife on the surface of a bottle. A crying baby doesn’t even make the list of the 10 most horrible sounds.
Kumar gave people 75 different sounds and asked them to rate them from most unpleasant to most pleasant.
This research, I figured, could be quite useful. I often don’t hear the ringtone on my iPhone, so I figured I’d find a ringtone that would annoy me so much I would always hear my phone.
Here are the top 10 most awful sounds the researchers found: 1. Knife scraping a bottle. 2. Fork hitting a glass. 3. Chalk scraping on a blackboard. 4. A female scream. 5. A bicycle squealing its brakes. 6. Fingernails scraping on a blackboard. 7. A grinding machine. 8. A clarinet squeaking. 9. A spade dragging on a concrete floor. 10. An electric guitar with distortion effects.
Responding to this list on the Web, people nominated other horrible sounds the researchers didn’t test: smacking gum, a buzzing mosquito and hearing the voice of one particular politician (whose name I’m not going to reveal).
What do people say are the most pleasant sounds? 1. A baby laughing. 2. Flowing water. 3. A small waterfall. 4. Running water. 5. Bubbling water. 6. A revving engine. 7. Applause. 8. Thunder. 9. A frog. 10. A lamb.
Many pleasant sounds have to do with the sounds of water, one of the most common sounds on relaxation music, such as music for meditation.
It’s easy to see why human beings would like the sound of water, much needed in earlier times. A baby’s annoying crying is an evolutionary advantage as well — babies are helpless and must summon help.
Why do we find these annoying sounds so unpleasant?
The researchers later found that activity in the brain’s emotional center, the amygdala, increased in direct proportion to the awfulness of the sound. You actually can feel physical pain.
The most unpleasant sounds occurred in the frequency range of 2,000 to about 5,000 Hz, the sound range where the ear is most sensitive.
Your psychological associations with the sound also influence your reactions, even your physical reactions.
In another study, Cristoph Reuter and his colleagues also found that the most irritating sounds indeed came from roughly the same frequency range.
But people’s thoughts about the origin of these sound, he found, make a difference.
Reuter told the people in his experiment exactly where the sounds came from.
If people thought the sound was coming from a fingernail on a chalkboard, for example, they responded much more negatively, both psychologically and physically, than if they thought the identical sound came from modern music.
My search for unpleasant sounds that I could use on my iPhone got me to lists of awful ringtones and other kinds of ringtones on Internet sites.
But this research has made me nix my idea of finding an annoying sound. If I use a horrible ringtone, like a scream or a buzzing fly, people will associate this annoyance with me.
So I’m searching the Internet for a different ringtone — one that’s funny as well as loud. Maybe I’ll use Bugs Bunny — “What’s up, Doc?”
Judith Kleinfeld, a longtime columnist for the Daily News-Miner, holds a doctorate from Harvard and is a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.