The 11 Worst Sounds in the World

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Annoying? Unbearable? Squirm-inducing? However you care to describe them, certain sounds are just intolerable to some people. Beginning in 2007, Professor Trevor Cox of Britain’s Salford University launched an ambitious ongoing research project to discover what sounds bug humans the most. Over the years, Cox has received over one million responses, both via his online site and an exhibit at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, and thus far the results are as follows.

1. Vomiting

Maybe it was the additional sound effects touch of canned baked beans plopping into a bucket that made the gagging and retching sound number one on the list (skeptics have stated that in this case it’s not the actual sound, but the rather mental picture that disgusts listeners), but I must state that I simply cannot be within earshot of a puking person, otherwise my own gag reflex involuntarily gets triggered.

(For the cast-iron stomached among you, here’s the sound clip used in the test.)

2. Microphone Feedback

As a rule, this one often is physically painful, so I’m not surprised it placed so high on the list.

3. Baby Crying

Interestingly enough, when Prof. Cox broke down the results of the responses into different demographic groups, it was the male contingent that boosted the sound of a baby’s wailing into the number three spot. That’s not to say that women aren’t equally upset by the sound—they’re just maternally conditioned not to complain about it as much.

4. Train Scraping on Tracks

Even if you don’t live in an area with regular rail transport (subway, passenger train), I’m sure the sound of metal-on-metal grinding—however it’s caused—still raises a hackle or two.

5. A Squeaky Wheel that Needs Some Grease

Whether it was a teeter-totter, a door hinge, or some other constantly moving part that is in serious need of lubrication, that constant whiny squeak sound irritated enough people to rank at number five.

6. Poorly Played Violin

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One of my favorite bands of all time, Sparks, had a great line in their song “Amateur Hour”: “It’s a lot like playing the violin, you cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin.” Apparently they were right—very bad scraping on the ol’ violin strings sets a lot of people’s teeth on edge.

7. Flatulence

It took us this long to get back to bodily noises? Not surprisingly, while it was men that found the sound of a crying baby irritating, women overwhelmingly voted for the sound of … gastritis (as Archie Bunker called it) as being upsetting.

8. People Arguing

Psychologists would probably trace the high placement of this sound to people’s childhoods and possibly their memories of cringing in the closet with their hands over their ears as their parents fought.

9. Mains Hum

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That annoying buzz you occasionally hear through speakers…for the audiophiles in the audience, it occurs at 50Hz in the UK and 60Hz in the US.

10. Person Chewing Food with an Open Mouth

An apple was the most-mentioned annoying open-mouthed munching sound, but I’m sure you can think of grosser sounds coming from a dining partner who inadvertently invites you to view and listen to his meal via his (or her) gaping maw. (And for the record, I have since curbed my movie theater popcorn-eating noises thanks to constructive criticism from my patient spouse.)

11. Fingernails on a Chalkboard

Perhaps it’s because so many schools now use whiteboards instead of chalkboards that this once classic example of an annoying sound ranked so low on the list. (Maybe it deserves a place in the Obsolete Sounds graveyard?) But those of us old enough to remember the hair-raising squeak of nails accidentally scraped on slate in elementary school still cringe at the memory.

So what sound absolutely makes you cringe? Or repulses you to the point where you can’t bear to hear it? As a kid I could always make my Mom run away in horror by squeaking a piece of Styrofoam against cardboard. See how many of our faithful readers you can squick out with your grossest sound triggers!

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November 13, 2012 - 3:11am
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