The Good, the Bad & the Irritating


This episode was written & produced by Jocelyn Frank.

Some sounds are like rug burn for your ears, while others are pleasant and soothing. We explore these sounds and get to the bottom of why we might interpret them as “good” or “bad”. Featuring Tommy Edison and David Poeppel


Gimme that Good Stuff by Kaleigh Baker
Far by Steven Gutheinz
Eroica Symphony by Beethoven
Directions by Steven Gutheinz
Purple7 by Tangerine
Ineffable Act IV by Dexter Britain
Hello Honey by Ivory Hours
Washedway by evlov (Theme Music)

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View Transcript ▶︎

[Music start]

From Defacto Sound, you're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story of how our bodies and minds are actually shaped by sound.

[traffic, car crash, monkey montage SFX]

Sounds can startle us, make our hearts race... Sounds can cause us to cry, to laugh or bring us into a deep meditative state.

There are so many sounds that impact our bodies on a daily basis.

I mean to start, just think about the sounds that might interrupt an otherwise peaceful day. For example… A police siren [siren SFX]. blaring by as we commute to work.

And what about the cries of an unhappy baby...

[baby crying SFX]

Or a vacuum cleaner, waking you up from your Saturday nap...

[snoring and vacuum SFX]

Whatever the sounds-- good or bad-- we want to get to the bottom of what leads us to make judgements about those sounds. What is going on in our brains that makes us evaluate sounds in the ways that we do? And is there any truth to that lurking feeling that for some sounds, we ALL kind of hold a similar judgement? ....I mean, is there a person out there who LIKES the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard?

[nails on a chalkboard SFX]

And, a tiny aside here: I want to pledge to you right here and now, that this WON’T be an episode of completely cringe-inducing sounds...but... there may be two or three more... stick with us. We’ll make it worth your while…

[dentist drill SFX]

Ok, Maybe that was a cheap shot….but there are certain sounds that really work to grab people’s attention. Sounds of all types can trigger a wide variety of reactions in our human minds. There are those, like screams, that are uncomfortable [scream SFX] (and we’ll come back to that idea later) but there are other sounds that can also put us at ease.

Think about the cooing of a newborn child [baby cooing SFX], or the sound of a golf ball dropping right [golf ball drop SFX], into the hole. To get things started I want to bring back a friend of the show, film critic Tommy Edison.

Tommy: My name is Tommy Edison, I’m known on YouTube as the Blind Film Critic.

Tommy is also an exceptional listener. As someone who is blind, listening is even more critical to the way he moves through the world.

Tommy: I love audio man, I love it so much. It’s a sense I think I use more than anything else. Probably neck n’ neck with touch.

It is often noted that when people have one sense inhibited, other senses are strengthened, Maybe that’s part of the reason why Tommy is such a good listener.

Tommy: I like a nice ... a well-tuned piano [piano music track], a piano that's perfectly in tune and a nice rich sound, like a Steinway or something like that. Children laughing is a wonderful little sound, right? [children laughing SFX] It's a great sound. The symphony is breath-taking, because it's all live in front of you, there's no amplification whatsoever and it’s incredible. [Symphony clip]

And Tommy points out, beautiful, breath-taking sounds don’t require a fancy music hall- they can be found, in high fidelity, all around us.

Tommy: There's so many things in nature that sound that good, like the ocean [ocean waves SFX]. You stand right at the ocean, and it's beautiful because it's in big natural stereo, there are things happening on both sides of you, as well as happening directly in front of you. It's wonderful! I love that sound. [continue ocean SFX]

So much can be noticed, just by standing still and ... listening.

[continue ocean SFX]

Tommy: The birds first thing in the morning [bird chirrping SFX]. You wake up a summer day and you hear them all tweeting ... it's breathtaking. You go outside and again, huge, wide stereo, like nothing you could ever hear from anything you could ever buy, it's wonderful. I just love those thing. The birds especially it's just one of the greatest sounds ever. [continue bird chirrping SFX]

And what about sounds that are a nuisance?

Tommy: The sounds that bug me, the one that makes me crazy more than anything else is a constant whir. Like the fan above the stove for example [exhuast fan SFX]... That's in your kitchen, the exhaust fan [continue exhuast fan SFX], or the one in the bathroom that comes on when you flip on the bathroom light [bathroom fan SFX]. I hate those sounds so much. I never understood in libraries why the buzz of the fluorescent was so loud. [flourescent light SFX]

So what is the deal with sounds like that? Are parts of our brains actually getting rewired when a hum, or some other sound, just won’t quit?

David: It’s not a one size fits all question.

That’s David Poeppel. He’s a professor of auditory psychology at New York University. He runs a research lab that focuses on questions like these.

David: My lab's quite fun, actually. A lot of it is super nerdy and it’s actually very quantitative and geeky. It’s kind of fun.

Before we dive deep into the “geekiest” part of Dr. Poeppel’s lab research- let’s start off with some basics. When we hear that “fingernails on the chalkboard sound,” [fingernails on a chalkboard SFX] or any sound, pleasant or unpleasant. What is actually happening in our bodies?

David: First of all, of course, the ear part of your body does the first part of the work. So whether it's something scratching on a blackboard or a very nice sound, or a speech, sounds, basically mechanical waves, enter your ear canal. You basically vibrate the ears.

Our ears have fluid inside them [underwater SFX] and that fluid vibrates when the sound waves move in. That vibration then triggers neural codes…*[electricity SFX}*

David: The information gets shuttled along a series of stations in the auditory brain stem and up to the outer layers of the brain, the cortex, as we call it and it goes through different stations and different sorts of information are extracted.

Even as you listen right now, your ears and brain are going through this process. So, in essence, you’re currently comprehending the information about the process of comprehension… That’s pretty meta.

But, let’s get back to that “fingernails on the chalkboard sound.” Did you tense up a little just from me mentioning it? Don’t worry, I’m not going to play it. Our bodies can determine a lot, really quickly, when we hear a noise like that.

David: First of all, just the location of the sound, where is it coming from [radar SFX]. In this case you use timing information about the sound, vis-a-vis your head position and your body position, where it's coming from. You figure out, for instance, the loudness, its pitch. Like in the case of the fingernails, it's pretty high-pitched. It's a screechy, annoying thing. Then, you want to figure out its timbre, which gives it its identity. Location, loudness, pitch, and timbre are qualities that you extract, from every sound.

So SINCE our bodies and minds have these standard processes we follow regardless of the sound, does that mean, at some level, that all sounds are basically equal? It turns out that depending on whether the sound is nice or not, different nuclei do different things.

David: Different different parts of the brain, feed the information forwards that you interpret. Let's say this is a very obnoxious sound, like the one you’re mentioning, it also gets a kind of affective stamp.

So your brain kind of says, “hold up,” [car breaking SFX] pay attention to this one.

David: This sound has certain properties that actually also activate those parts of my brain that tell me something is annoying or dangerous.

Dallas track: And all this happens, thankfully, really fast.

David: Because you want to be immediately alarmed and say, "Holy cow, I have to turn away and run," or something like that. You don't want to have a kind of deliberation, like, "Is this a good idea? Probably not."

David Poeppel’s lab has looked even more closely at this concept of reactions to alarming sounds. They wanted to know if certain characteristics of a sound cause these reactions, so they started a research project on an alarming sound that we’re all familiar with. We’ll get to that, in just a minute.

[music out]


[music in]

David Poeppel’s lab has looked at the unique ways our brain reacts to alarming sounds. They wanted to know if there were certain properties within the sound that correlated to that, as he says, “holy cow, I have to turn away and run” response. So, They launched a research project focused entirely on…screams.

David: Screams that are alarming. Those, of course, are designed to be extremely effective at making you pay attention at being ready to fight or flight, basically. They have to be super, super effective.

And when David says alarming screams, he’s not talking about screams because your favorite team just scored the winning point [crowd cheering SFX]. We’re talking about the kind of screams people make because they suddenly realize a hungry lion just snuck up behind them! [terrifying scream SFX]

David: Those kind of screams have a acoustic property called "roughness.”Roughness, has, it's a little bit weird to explain, but it's basically the rate at which the loudness of the sound changes. When we're speaking, you and I are having a conversation, the loudness of the signal, goes up and down about four to five times a second.

When you make it, let's say, 30 times or 50 times or a hundred times a second, the sound gets a quality called "roughness." This roughness, actually correlates very precisely with interpreting a sound as alarming or scary.

So let's hear that; we reproduced an experiment, like one done in David’s lab. Here is the first option...

[whimpy scream SFX]

Ok, so that was kind of wimpy. Let's hear what it sounds like when we add more roughness.

[rough scream SFX]

David: You have to learn to think like uh, like you’re sitting on a wave form, going forward, right? Imagine speech as an oscillating waveform and imagine yourself sitting on that and just going up and down.

That rollercoaster of waveforms that you're sitting on is actually what gets interpreted by the mind and the brain. It's the specifics of how that rollercoaster of the wave is organized that actually is at the basis of how you how you interpret sound.

Independent from the emotional memories that we might connect to a particular sound, there are straight-up acoustic of certain sounds that impact how we evaluate the pleasantness or unpleasantness of that sound.

David: So there's a very direct correlation between this acoustic property of roughness and the extent to which, as a listener, you interpret the sound as frightening or alarming. Turns out that alarm signals more generally have that property…car alarms [car alarm SFX], police sirens [police siren SFX], they all share that roughness property.

If alarm sounds have specific qualities that yield specific, measurable responses in us as listeners, what about the other side of the coin?

[nightime rain and crickets SFX]

What about beautiful, peaceful and positive sounds?

David: Why things become pleasant is an extremely interesting and growing research area why do we like certain things. It turns out that we don't know that much about it.

But research is getting underway.

David: Nature sounds, animal sounds, positive vocalizations things like laughter [laughing SFX]. Seems obvious that they should have some properties that make us want to listen. Whether they share something, seems to me, kind of unlikely. If you think about it acoustically, if you record those sounds and look at them in a quantitative way they have vastly different properties.

So I guess want to raise is that the case of alarms or dangerous things, you want to be very specific in an evolutionary sense. Because you want it to be like a hammer [hammer SFX]. When you hit that thing, it always works the same way. Positive things are a little bit more open to interpretation/ It doesn't matter that you have it the same way always. I think there's maybe a difference between positive affect and negative affect signals, because they serve a very different function.

Beyond good sounds and bad sounds, alarm sounds and positive sounds, there’s another angle into all this that I wanted to ask Dr. Poeppel about.

Sounds seem to have this ability to impact us in groups. Think about the sounds of a traffic jam.

[traffic jam SFX]

They are clashy and angry. The more honking there is, the more the moods of those few honkers seems to spread out across all the drivers... people seem to treat each other differently because of the dissonant experience.

And sounds can bond people-- bring us together-- in spiritual ways. They can help focus thousands of people... into the same mindset.

What it is about our bodies and minds that allows us to connect this way? Is there a way to measure something so abstract?

There are some common properties about those collective and sometimes spiritual sound moments….the chanting, the singing... but... it’s not about the sounds themselves.

David: The first thing is you're in a group. The second thing is you're trying to actually synchronize. And it's the latter that's very compelling and that we can now measure, that hasn’t been done, this is just at the beginning of research these days but is to try and figure out how, not just pairs of people but entire groups actually become synchronized.

That's why, for instance, an orchestra can work or a choir. But in the chanting case, one very compelling experience is this feeling, the feeling of groupiness.

That “groupiness” is something that scientists can actually measure.

David: You can measure that neurophysiologically, because if I have a group of people chanting and I wire them all up with EEG, recording equipment, we can show that actually the extent to which they're really synchronized with each other and attending to the particular chant is reflected in their neurophysiological activity very directly.

So there is something that is a universal feature, if you're doing something in a group, insofar as you're really engaged with it, jointly attending to it, that, in turn, actually correlates with the extent to which you like the experience or find it engaging.

Think of the best concert you’ve ever been to. I bet when you told your friends about it your story ended with, “...ya’ just had to be there”. Well, it looks like there might be something to that, scientifically. The delight of listening can transcend the sounds themselves - when we listen with other people.

Twenty Thousand Hertz is presented by Defacto Sound a sound design team dedicated to making television, film and games sound insanely cool. Find out more at defactosound.com.

This episode was produced by Jocelyn Frank and me. With help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and mixed by Nick Spradlin and Kenneth Gilbert. We’d like to thank Tommy Edison who you can find on youtube as the blind film critic and NYU professor David Poeppel for speaking with us. We also have a link to learn more about Dr. Poepple’s scream study on our website 20k.org.

Our soundtrack is from our friends at Musicbed who offer a highly curated catalog from great indie artists and composers. Like what you hear? Listen to all of the songs from our show and even license them for your own projects at music.20k.org. If you or someone you know is interested in sponsoring the show. Reach out through our website or drop us a note at hi@20k.org.

Finally, we’d really love to hear from you. What are your favorite sounds? ...and what sounds make you absolutely cringe? Tell us on Facebook or Twitter. Also, don’t forget to tell a friend to check out the show and give us a review in itunes.

You’ll find all of the links I mentioned in the show description.

Thanks for listening.

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