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One man's sonata is another man's noise. But I was reading an article today titled The Worst Noises in the World which reported on a recent neuroscience study investigating the interaction between the auditory cortex and the amygdala when a subject is exposed to "pleasant" and "unpleasant" sounds. The amygdala is a section of the brain that handles emotional response. There are a few interesting notes that the article states, but one stuck out to me.

Analysis of the acoustic features of the sounds found that anything in the frequency range of around 2,000 to 5,000 Hz was found to be unpleasant.

I find it to be a very broad and misleading statement. Perhaps they are speaking of sounds which have their fundamental frequency fall in that range? But I also believe that other factors, like timbre, rhythm, duration & intensity, can influence the "unpleasantness" of a particular sound.

For those who don't want to click through, here's what they found:

Most Unpleasant Sounds

Rating 74 sounds, people found the most unpleasant noises to be

  • Knife on a bottle
  • Fork on a glass
  • Chalk on a blackboard
  • Ruler on a bottle
  • Nails on a blackboard
  • Female scream
  • Anglegrinder
  • Brakes on a cycle squealing
  • Baby crying
  • Electric drill

Least Unpleasant Sounds

  • Applause
  • Baby laughing
  • Thunder
  • Water flowing

I found the list of unpleasant sounds familiar to the answers regarding this question about tension (a potentially unpleasant state). But also find it odd that the "least unpleasant" sounds all can/do occupy this same "unpleasant frequency range."

Regardless, this stirred a question in me. Since it's fright month and there are a lot of horror/ghost/paranormal stories going around, what do you find to be an "unpleasant" sound and how does this influence your design / mix? What aspects do you pay mind to when crossing the thresholds between "uneasy" to "scary" and how do you avoid going too far into "unpleasant", or even "TURN IT OFF!!!"?

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3 Answers

Thanks for the link Steve... I love that sort of stuff!

Maybe it's a post-thing, but I still find 1K tone to be an annoying sound... especially the longer it goes on. I think it might be because it's such an unwavering, unnatural sound (there's nothing really in the world that creates a pure sine wave). Case in point... [this][1] at around the 7:40 mark. The director wanted a "completely unnatural" sound which would be extremely unpleasant... sure enough the 1K tone is in there :)

When is it too far? I think length is a factor - the longer it goes on the more annoying a sound becomes. How long depends on the story you're trying to tell... sometimes the director WANTS it to go on too long, to create that sense of unease. Other times it's using just enough to start the unease, then releasing it. On one animated show I did we had an episode called "The Most Annoying Sound in the World", and basically it was a lot of that list. The director/producer, who was normally hands off with the audio, was very specific about how long certain sounds would go on for, to create maximum annoyance.

P.S. Every now and again I get someone commenting on that very scene, and how it made them uncomfortable... kinda makes me smile that we got it right!

[1]: : http://blip.tv/ottawa-horror/nightmare-1666924

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Dissonance and association usually work well to elicit negative emotional responses.

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For me it's fingernails on metal. It gives me the same gut response sonically as the chalkboard, but my mind actually "hurts" thinking about the physical pain of doing it against metal.

For me I guess the sound choice balance for dealing with what you mention would be a matter of how much high frequency content (especially 8k+ shrill stuff) and grittiness I mix into the overall effect. (Case in point: stuttering nails on metal 'hurts' more than a clean smooth scrape).

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