Friday, January 15, 2021

For the Sound Of Silence


What is the most annoying sound?

The constant ping of a computer when it’s won’t do what it’s supposed to do?

The drone of a vacuum?

A dog barking constantly?

The whirr of a dental drill? 

The Tsk Tsk of somebody else’s earphones as they listen to bad music?

I could go on.  And on.

However the wonderful neuroscientists at  Newcastle University have sorted it out for us, using MRI scanning to look at the activity in brains when 13 healthy subjects heard 74 different sounds. They  had to rate each noise from unpleasant to pleasant.

The perception of a sound as unpleasant when there is variance  the amygdala and auditory complex parts of the brain. Basically, the more annoying the noise, the more activity in the amygdala increases. This produces an emotional spike in contrast to an  emotional quietening when we hear sounds we like such as  bubbling water or a baby laughing.

The ears are very sensitive  around the higher-frequency range of around 2,000 to 5,000 Hz  and these are perceived as unpleasant.  Screaming is up around here for very good evolutionary reasons.

This could be the reason why my dog can hear chocolate at 500 paces.

And this all links to the understanding of treatment  of conditions like tinnitus and migraine where there is an extreme heightening of perception of unpleasant sounds.

Here  are the top ten;-

1. Knife on a bottle;  ‘Im not sure why anybody would want to put a knife on a bottle? Is that even a thing?. There are some clever people in the UK who open champagne bottles with a sword, but the noise of that is not that unpleasant, neither are the results.

2. Fork on a glass. Again who puts a fork against glass? A fork scraping on a plate, yes, that is very annoying and habitual  offenders should be given plastic cutlery.

3. Chalk on a blackboard…. Why do I equate that with tinfoil on a filling, must be the signs of my misspent youth. Equally, the sound of chalk flying through the air towards you is as unpleasant when it hits you on the forehead.

4. Ruler on a bottle, again why would anybody do that?

5. Nails on a blackboard. Human nails I presume,  again a reason for childhood trauma.

6. Female scream. Listed as female scream. Do men scream? If they do, do we not find that annoying?  Grunting at tennis matches surely should be in here. I have to watch Wimbledon with the sound down now.

7. Disc grinder.   No idea what this sounds like, but I can  imagine.

8. Squealing brakes on a bicycle, yes but to me not as bad as the drone of formula one.

9. Baby crying. Oh yes!

10. Electric drill..worse than a dentist drill?


On the other end of the spectrum, though, are the least unpleasant sounds among the group. They are:


1. Applause

2. Baby laughing

3. Thunder

4. Water flowing


Other annoying sounds are

Whining – like the dog in those lassie films who whimpered all the way through the terrible script.

Eating, chewing, and slurping. Snoring, sniffing and loud breathing

Mobile ring tones

Alarm clocks and car alarms

Polystyrene rubbed together

Clicking pens – I once sat at the lecture behind somebody who constantly  clicked their pen. I plotted a really good murder during that lecture.

Dogs barking

Mosquitos and flies, and all buzzy insects!


Some writers write in silence, some with music on. I write with the TV on low, showing a programme I know so well I could take a lead role but it’s just enough noise to drown out any or all of the above that may intrude my creative bubble.

Caro Ramsay


  1. When I'm writing, I detest the noise of children playing outside. The penetrating screams of excitement pierce my bubble so badly I want to open the window and scream "SHUT UP". I don't though. Instead, I imagine murdering them on the page but it rarely fits the current plot.

  2. I live in a street with no children and i dread the day the elderly neighbours move out. That will be the day I get triple glazing!!!

  3. Did one of the 74 sounds happen to be the voice of Donald Trump? Likely not, as that would SURELY have been #1.

    1. I'm tempted to say Donald who as that name is punishable by garotting in our house. Ditto the Kardashians who make a strange braying noise when they talk, like a constipated donkey.

  4. The polystyrene one is what gets me. Literally makes me cringe in pain. If I ever get a package with polystyrene (less and less common now) I have to put on noise-canceling headphones first before touching it.

    For pleasant sounds:
    -a bubbling stream--agreed!
    -waves breaking at the shoreline
    -forest at night

    I laughed at the pen-clicker. When I was in high school and we taking an essay exam, one of my classmates repeatedly capped his pen with a loud click. Drove me nuts.

  5. Frankly, I'm all in for the sounds of silence, or at least none in a language I understand. BTW, I love your nib. It also doubles as a weapon--just ask US Representative Jason Crow.

  6. I can't do anything without music. Like you, I think I need something to keep my ears busy while I think. Otherwise, some sounds soothe. Some make me want to Scream!! Good: Cicadas in the African night. Bad: Mosquito buzzing the the New York Night. Bad: Baby crying. Good: Children playing. Very Good: Mozart on a clarinet. Very Bad: Loud drunks in a restaurant. I could go on..........