A Tour of Some of the World's Worst Sounds Trevor Cox, professor of acoustical engineering weighs in on the world's most unfortunate audio.
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A Tour of Some of the World's Worst Sounds

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A Tour of Some of the World's Worst Sounds

A Tour of Some of the World's Worst Sounds

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NEAL CONAN, host:

There are plenty of annoy-some(ph) noises in the world - the annoying drip of a leaky faucet, the screech of tires before an accident, your uncle's seemingly musical flatulence. But when it comes to ranking these irksome sounds, it's tough to pick the worst.

Yet, that's what researchers in England have done after posting 34 clips of the most revolting, disgusting sounds of the world on a Web site. Over 1 million people voted on the worst, and the runner up is…

(Soundbite of microphone feedback)

CONAN: The cringe-inducing sounds of microphone feedback. Of course, we'd like to hear from you. Would you like to weigh in on this conversation? What sounds drive you up the wall, make the hairs of your neck stand on back? And let us know. Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us talk@npr.org. And let's make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. We'll get that right, sooner or later.

Joining us to discuss the results of this study by the Acoustic Research Center at the University of Salford, is Trevor Cox, professor of acoustical engineering at the University of Salford, who's with us today from the studios of the BBC in Bristol. And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Professor TREVOR COX (Acoustical Engineering, University of Salford): Good evening, or should I say, good afternoon, to you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. First of all, how do you compile a list of disgusting noises?

Prof. COX: Well, you start by thinking about all sorts of horrible things in your life. You might think about disgusting things like the sound of someone -I don't know, over out with a snotty nose. Or you think about those archetypal ones, like dragging fingernails down the black board or baby screaming and animal crying, and you just kind of put together a list of - you get quite a big list quite quickly, actually.

CONAN: Yeah. We have a link to the sounds at our Web site. You can go to the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org to listen to some of these terrible noises. But we do have to say, you know, there are some classics that everybody is aware of and - for example the dentist's drill.

(Soundbite of teeth drilling)

CONAN: And maybe not high pitched enough to get that really stirring sense in your fillings.

Prof. COX: I'm not sure that was a dentist's drill. I think that was DIY drill, you know…

CONAN: Ah, could be.

Prof. COX: So I think it's not a dentist. If the dentist steps out with that drill, I'd be very worried. Of course, we find that one horrible because, I don't know, we're expecting pain to be arriving at any moment now. And interesting enough, what we found was that, it's as much worse among people who are most like to have dentistry's - 40s and 50s and young kids. So if you're like, you have fillings, you going to have find out much worse sound than if you're serving your 20s and 30s when your teeth are more healthy.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. There's also various types of well, body sounds to categorize them, including the classic sniffling.

(Soundbite of sniffling)

CONAN: Yes, disgusting, although I'll give you that one.

Prof. COX: Yes, that comes - that's actually my nose recorded after a cold day cycling in Manchester that is. Yeah, we find these things disgusting and partly it's a survival mechanism. So if you got someone who's coughing and spluttering, they're obviously carrying some form of disease and you need to stay away from them. So you find this kind of sound and the sight of this kind of thing, disgusting, so we can survive. But we also find on the Web site, that we found that people, I don't know - manners came into this as well. So it wasn't just, the response just wasn't about survival. It's about, is it polite to do this as well. So, the results weren't quite as we expected.

CONAN: Or let's get some listeners weighing in on this weighty conversation. 800-989-8255, 800-989-talk. E-mail, talk@npr.org. What's the most disgusting sound in the world? Let's go to Chris(ph), Chris with us from Cleveland, Ohio.

CHRIS (Caller): Okay, thanks Neal, and good day to you guys.

CONAN: Good day.

CHRIS: For me, the worst sound imaginable is the sound of a China plate scraping against the bottom of a porcelain sink that has not been thoroughly rinsed of cleanser.

CONAN: So you get that awful squeaking sound?

CHRIS: It's a weird scraping sound that seems to have - the constituents of it just send me reeling. I can't even think when I hear that sound.

CONAN: Did China plates get many votes there, professor?

Prof. COX: Well, we didn't have China plates, but we had a variety of horrible scraping sounds from the classic fingernails down the blackboard to polystyrene being scraped, which, apparently, some people really hate. It doesn't do anything for me.

I mean, I had e-mails from people saying, I won't buy anything mail order which has got polystyrene packaging because I can't bear to unpack it. So, you know, people have really profound and very strong reactions to these sort of scraping sounds.

CONAN: And a lot of those are very high frequency sounds.

Prof. COX: Yes. That's one of the interesting things that previous research implied that high frequencies weren't that important to the horribleness of scraping sounds. But I'm not so convinced by that.

And we're hoping to go and do some laboratory experiments up at Salford and actually find out what the frequencies which are important to make this horrible are.

CONAN: Hm.

CHRIS: The interesting thing for me is that fingernails on a blackboard has never - or chalk going wrongly on a blackboard, those things don't tend to bother me. The plate in the sink, though…

CONAN: All right.

CHRIS: …is just horrible.

CONAN: Another vote for the plate there. Chris, thanks very much for the call. And stay away from porcelain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRIS: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to - this is Dao(ph). Dao is with us from Mountain View, in California.

DAO (Caller): Yes?

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DAO: Well, can I name two?

CONAN: Yeah. Sure.

DAO: OK. The first noise is this squeaking from above my condo.

CONAN: The squeaking from…

DAO: Floors creaking. I tell you, it drives me up the wall - terrible squeaking. You know, the floorboard?

CONAN: Oh, yes. The floorboard squeaking. Was that a nominee?

Prof. COX: Well, we had a couple of door creaking sounds within it - within the site. So you could, you know, the classic, eee, kind of sound is someone sort of coming into a horror movie.

DAO: And then another sound is somebody blows their nose like five times in a row.

CONAN: Ah-ha. Nose blowers.

DAO: Like my husband.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And Trevor Cox, I have to ask. Was yours, again, the nose of experiment this time around?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COX: Yes. Indeed, the nose blowing was me. But some of the coughing wasn't me. So we got the sounds from a variety of sources.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAO: (unintelligible). Five, six times - I mean, when somebody does that like, every 10 minutes don't you go nuts?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Probably. And it may be grounds for divorce, at least in California.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAO: I think that may happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, Dao, we wish you and your husband the best.

DAO: Oh, thank you so much.

CONAN: And a little 10W40 for those floorboards upstairs.

DAO: Right. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And can I ask you, Trevor Cox, why you've - you set out on the search for the world's most disgusting noise?

Prof. COX: Well, as an acoustic engineer, what you're trying to do is engineer things to sound - I don't know, at least pleasant, or maybe not quite so nasty.

So at home I spend a lot my time doing physical engineering and manipulating sound. I need to understand how people respond to sounds to be able to come up with a sort of end sound I want to get to.

So this kind of getting people to listen to sounds and judge sounds is something I do all the time. And it just struck me that with the Internet nowadays, we have the capability of involving the whole world in this experiment and looking how people's responses varied around the world.

And this seemed like a unique opportunity. And I chose horrible sounds because everyone has a horrible sound, it seems. So it's something that could attract attention. So we were sure the Web site would be popular, and we'd get lots of votes.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And did you find - well, tell us some of the more intriguing things that you've concluded from your study.

Prof. COX: Well, you played sound number two. Number three was a set of babies crying. And there was a single baby crying, which I think - if I remember rightly - was seventh or eighth. And that's quite interesting, because that's something that men find worse than women.

In general, we find that women find sounds worse than men. And the suggestion is that a lot of these sounds are about survival. And therefore, women who have a role of protecting the youngsters will tend to find sounds more horrible.

But actually, babies crying is one where men find it worse than women. So there's something maybe about that - about women who look after children habituating and get used to it - getting used to the sounds.

CONAN: Did you find any cultural differences of people from one part of the world citing one particular sound or not citing another one?

Prof. COX: Yes, lots of variations with countries. So, for example, if you take something like fingernails down the blackboard, Americans are among one of the countries which respond strongly - or most horribly - to this particular sound.

The worst sound in the world was the sound of someone throwing up. And that was worse for people in the U.K. One of the funny ones I think is that with a dentist drill, which you played earlier on. That's much worse if you're in South American.

CONAN: Hm.

Prof. COX: That must say something about South American dentistry. I don't know what because, I'm not a dentistry expert. But that must say something about what dentists do to their patients in the South America.

CONAN: Trevor Cox has given away the winner. And, of course, we're now obliged to play it. We're playing, I have to say, a truncated version of the winner, because we agree, it's just about the worst sound in the world.

So if this is going to bother you, close your ears just for about three seconds.

(Soundbite of vomiting)

CONAN: I'm not going to ask who was the model for that one.

Prof. COX: It wasn't me, actually, I can say. And it was actually an actor. It wasn't really someone throwing up, you'll be glad to hear. But what it was is things like baked beans being slopped into buckets and things to simulate the sound, and an actor doing quite a good job.

CONAN: We are speaking with Trevor Cox, a professor of acoustical engineering at the University of Salford. That's near Manchester in England. His study is called "The Worst Sound in the World."

If you'd like to join our conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And this is TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Tom. And Tom's calling us from Niceville in Florida.

TOM (Caller): Yes. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

TOM: And I hope you won't be offended by this, but the sound I find - the most annoying sound that I've ever heard - and your last sound wasn't even close - is NPR.

And by that I mean you have these little musical breaks - not different types of music, but it's the same thing over and over again with different instruments.

CONAN: Right.

TOM: And it goes like (Singing) da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da.

CONAN: Well that's for another program. That's for another program with a recognizable theme song that comes on shortly after this program ends here on the East Coast.

TOM: OK. Well, I guess it would count still. And they do it with a flute. And it goes up in a really high register. And I either have to turn the radio off or just lay it down so low I can't hear it.

CONAN: Uh-huh. Well, we have a - do we have that? Let's - Trevor Cox has not had the opportunity to listen to that much National Public Radio. So let's see how - where this might rate on his personal list of worst sounds in the world.

(Soundbite of NPR music)

CONAN: And I think that's the flute version of our theme and not the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED theme. But Trevor Cox, on a scale of one to 10?

Prof. COX: Oh, that's going to come pretty low, I would think, for most people. But what we're looking at in the Web site is average response. And it's perfectly allowable and acceptable that some people find something immensely irritating that other people don't.

I mean, maybe that's an example of annoying sounds. And we have a variety on the Web site. I suppose the one people are probably used to are things like dogs barking or mobile phone rings going off.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. COX: And these are all…

CONAN: Car alarms. Yeah.

Prof. COX: Oh, car alarms. We didn't much have a car alarm. But it's that sort of thing. And the reason we don't like these is they get in the way of our every day lives. So we don't like the sound of aircraft taking off if they wake us up.

So we find things that get in the way of every day lives annoying. And we had a whole variety of them. They didn't necessarily score very highly up the list, but they're very important - things like traffic noise and aircraft noise all have to be very carefully regulated unless you want to disturb a lot of people.

CONAN: Hm. Tom, thanks for the call. And you're going to have to live with the flute, I'm afraid.

TOM: OK. Well, I certainly find your show irritating.

CONAN: Oh, well, thanks very much for that.

TOM: Thank you.

CONAN: We don't play that button too often, either. So that's what we call them by the way. 800-989-8255, e-mail is talk@npr.org.

And let's go to Ned. Ned's with us from Santa Clara, California.

NED (Caller): Hello, Trevor. This is not a sound that I have a problem with particularly, but it's my wife's least favorite sound. And it's the middle of the day here in California, so you can't really get the full benefit of it. It's best - I should say or strongest - in the early morning when I'm just waking up.

She calls it snorking. And I'm clearing my sinuses back in the back of my nose where I can't get to any other way. Do you really want to hear it?

CONAN: All right. Give us a shot.

(Soundbite of snorking)

CONAN: Oh, you got to sign that kid up, Trevor Cox.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NED: I'm sorry that it's not more early morning.

CONAN: We're thrilled that it was a not-so-early morning.

NED: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But Trevor, you think that might make your list?

Prof. COX: It could well do. I mean, it reminded me a bit of some of the animal sounds we had on the Web site. So, I mean, I guess your wife doesn't like it because it's probably fairly disgusting to listen to and also, you know, she didn't do it.

NED: That's what she says. That's what she says.

Prof. COX: But, yeah, so it's the same sort of thing as coughing and spitting and all these kind of sounds we had. And the fact that there's a bit of it's disgusting because we think it's associated with disease. And there's also probably a bit that it's not very good manners to do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COX: I'd always get into marriage guidance here. (unintelligible) clear.

NED: Well…

Prof. COX: It reminds me of some of the animal sounds we had as well on the Web site.

NED: I do go off behind two closed doors when it's necessary. But it's still upsetting.

CONAN: OK, Ned.

NED: Thanks for taking my call. This was a fun show.

CONAN: And yours for silent mornings, Ned. Thanks very much for the call. And, of course, that's a variant on a noise that I guess would combine both disgusting and annoying. And that, of course, is the snore.

(Soundbite of snoring)

CONAN: And that's not even the full apnea effect. I've heard of other people snoring much worse than that, Trevor Cox.

Prof. COX: Oh, yes. I mean, you get a whole variety of snoring. And if you suffer with someone that you sleep with who snores, it's terrible. And it's - again, it's this annoyance, because it's getting in the way of your normal life.

So if there was snoring in the next-door room and it's all quiet, you don't care. It's because they're keeping you awake that you find that annoying.

CONAN: Right.

Prof. COX: So it's what you associate it with - sleepless nights, not being able to go to sleep. And that's the reason you'd vote that to be horrible.

CONAN: Well, we just have a few seconds left. And I have to ask you, what was your personal worst?

Prof. COX: I think it was the dentist drill. It's the one which actually survived the whole year with me still thinking it was horrible. Most of these sounds I'm really very immune to, and I can listen to and they do nothing to me because I've got habituated to them.

But the dentist drill still gets me in the back of the throat.

CONAN: And are you going on from here to investigate the world's most pleasant sound?

Prof. COX: That's the plan in the autumn to do something about nice sounds, because I think I've had enough of listening to dentist drills and fingernails down the blackboard.

And I think I want to hear humpback whales' cries and leaves rustling or something a bit more pleasant.

CONAN: Trevor Cox, we wish you the best of luck. Trevor Cox, a professor of acoustical engineering at the University of Salford in Manchester in England. He joined us today from the studios of the BBC in Bristol.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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