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The worst sound in the world

Finger nails scrapping down a blackboard, the scream of a baby, your neighbour's dog barking: what is the worst sound in the world?

Sound is one of the primary means of communication and pervades all areas of our world. Acoustic science is about the production, transmission, manipulation and reception of sound; from unwanted traffic noise to beautiful music. Acoustics embodies both the physical properties of sound waves, and the psychological and physiological reaction of humans.

A major aim for this proposal was to produce an exhibit for the Xperiment hands on gallery at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester (MOSI). While some exhibits in the gallery deal with sound, these are mostly to do with physical phenomena (e.g. resonance). This appears to be true of most interactive galleries. An important part of acoustics is therefore not being fully explored, that is the often complex way in which people perceive and interpret sounds. Understanding human response is an important part of engineering design in acoustics. The aim of the exhibit was to make people more aware of the psychology of acoustic signals by examining what makes a sound unpleasant or unbearable to listen to.

First ever large scale Acoustics Internet experiment

Without control, sound may damage the environment, create annoyance and stress. On the other hand, correct acoustic design can greatly improve quality of life at work, in performance spaces and at home. An important part of acoustics research is to measure how people respond to sounds, so that appropriate engineering measures can be taken to abate unwanted sounds or enhance desirable ones. The second major aim of this PPE project was to run a mass Internet-based experiment to find the Worst Sound in the World and so enable a larger audience to be reached than achieved from the exhibit alone. At the time of writing, two million votes have been logged on the website. Many acoustics research projects examine the human response to sound. However, these are naturally limited in the number and range of participants. While Internet experimentation is becoming more popular, I believe that this project marks the first ever large scale acoustics Internet experiment, where people actually audition and rate sounds. This is now possible because nearly all computers are now sold Internet and multi-media ready. Consequently, alongside the publc engagement objectives of the project, the project became a test bed for a new experimental methodology resulting in three publications in an International refereed journal.

Watch Trevor Cox discuss BadVibes on Teachers.TV

EPSRC PPE project, £20k

T. J. Cox, 'Bad vibes: an investigation into the worst sounds in the world,' PPA-09-003, proc. 19th ICA Madrid. (2007).

Czigler I, Cox TJ, Gyimesi K, Horvath J, 'Event-related potential study to aversive auditory stimuli,' Neuroscience Letters 420(3): 251-256. (2007).

T. J. Cox, “The effect of visual stimuli on the horribleness of awful sounds,” Applied Acoustics. (2008).

T. J. Cox, “Scraping Sounds and Disgusting Noises,” Applied Acoustics. (2008).