Scientists agree that unpleasant sounds fall into two distinct categories: first, annoying sounds like incessant car alarms and snoring, because they are intrusive and disrupt our thought process (or sleep). And second, noises that trigger an immediate negative visceral reaction, like nails on a chalkboard or squeaking Styrofoam. The items below are ranked in order of “cringe-worthiness” according to an ongoing study by Professor Trevor Cox of Britain’s Salford University.
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 rather the 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
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.
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
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.
These additional items are culled from other studies:
Dr. Cox found that certain sounds skewed very differently according to geography. In all of the South American countries that responded to his survey, the high-pitched whine of a dentist’s drill was the number one sound that made folks shudder. When asked in an interview what sound was his personal bugaboo, Cox (who resides in Manchester, England) admitted that he was likewise squicked out by the dental drill.
Knife against Glass Bottle
Scientists at Newcastle University conducted a very precise study in 2012 concentrating on the sounds that registered in the super-sensitive sound frequency range of 2,000 to 5,000 hz. They played a variety of painful noises, including chalk squeaking on a blackboard and a fork scratching a drinking glass, but according to the MRI scans of their volunteers a knife scraping against a bottle was the most excruciating.
Squealing Bicycle Brakes
Michael Oehler and Christoph Reuter of the University of Vienna added a twist when they conducted their 2011 study. Prior to playing an assortment of unpleasant sounds to one test group, they informed the volunteers that they would be hearing portions of a performance art piece, while the second group was told the actual source of each sound. Each group was asked to rate their discomfort on a scale of one to six, and the folks who thought they were listening to avant garde music gave slightly lower marks to each sound. Squeaky bike brakes scored high on the list along with the usual suspects (nails on a chalkboard, natch).
* * *
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.
Portions of this post appeared in 2012.