When is a noise annoying?by Margo White
Irritating noises have less to do with acoustics than with the hearer’s mental state.
According to headlines published around the world earlier this year, the most annoying sound to be heard anywhere is a whining toddler. This was based on a survey by psychologists who got participants to try to solve maths problems while being subjected to the sounds of a high-pitched saw, someone talking “motherese” (that exaggerated baby talk adults make around babies), a machine sound, a child whining, etc, in order to find out which was the most distracting.
The exact point of the study was unclear – something to do with our response to sound as an evolutionary adaption – but the fact that it made international headlines suggests there are certain irritations with which we are all intimately acquainted. A whining child may be one of the most irritating sounds in the world … along with the sound of a baby crying, an adult spitting, someone coughing, the neighbour’s music, the neighbour’s dog, your colleague’s cellphone, the ch-ch-ch-ch-ch of the iPod worn by the person beside you on the bus, John Key’s between-sentences saliva-sucking sound, and so on.
Those who went to school in the 20th century might still flinch at the very thought of a fingernail on a blackboard, possibly the world’s most excruciating sound, and thankfully rendered obsolete by the arrival of the whiteboard.
There are certain characteristics of the inherently irritating sound: a rough sound is more irritating than a smooth one, an intermittent sound more annoying than a constant one and, obviously enough, a loud sound generally more annoying than a soft one. Yet it seems only about 30% of annoyance from sound is associated with the acoustic properties. “The sociopsychological state of the person listening is far more influential than anything else,” says David Welch, of the audiology department at the University of Auckland.
What makes a sound annoying – that is, when a sound becomes a noise – is mostly to do with the personalities of the people hearing it, their attitudes to the source of the noise and whatever situation they are in when the noise is being made. (A child whining is generally not the sort of sound one wants to hear when being forced to solve maths problems.)
Noise, then, is largely in the ear of the receiver, but there are distinct psychosocial themes. We find noises that we can’t attribute to a particular source unsettling; people with tinnitus might not mind the white noise generated by their brain if it was generated by their environment. Dissonant music is more irritating than consonant music, although fans of heavy metal and Mahler will point out it can be an acquired taste.
Low-frequency sounds are more likely to annoy than high frequencies, mainly because they travel further. But again, it’s a subjective thing. That low thumping that you hear coming out of black Nissan Sunnys driven by teenagers wearing baseball caps might make most people feel homicidal, but the guy in the Nissan Sunny has probably never felt happier.
The sounds of other people coughing, spitting, sniffing and vomiting are widely recognised as both unpleasant and annoying – humans seem to be generally intolerant of the sounds of other people functioning, biologically speaking.
“Noise sensitivity” is a recognised personality trait, but it has nothing to do with hearing. People with perfect pitch might be more annoyed by the sounds of everyday life because a lot of them sound off-key. Oddly enough, people in their thirties, forties and fifties tend to be more easily annoyed by noise than people in other age groups. “We don’t know why,” says Welch. “Perhaps they’re the age group most willing to express their annoyance.”
The combination of acoustic and psychosocial factors constituting an annoying noise is perhaps exemplified by opposition to wind farms. “The sound [of the generators] is at low frequencies that carry really well,” says Welch. “The people living near them are often noise-sensitive people who have deliberately gone to live in the countryside because they want peace and quiet.
“The people who have them on their property might be getting paid for having them there, which breeds resentment, because those who aren’t getting money still have to put up with the sight and sound of the actual generators … then acousticians get in and say they’re below the maximum level of sound.”
Which is a legislative response that also reflects our unsophisticated understanding of noise, and its impact on people. “The law isn’t good because the level of noise is often immaterial to how annoying the sound is.”
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