The Most (and Least) Annoying Sounds Ever, According to a Study

Pick your poison: A coworker humming in the office? An incessantly yapping puppy? Sloppy, noisy eating? "Moist"? Surely you have at least one type of sound that sets you off. Though you may have a niche noise annoyance, researchers have identified more universally hated sounds that may be commonly despised.

Whatcha Got Against Bottles?

Nails on a chalkboard may be the most clichéd of the horrid noises out there, but apparently, it's not the most annoying. In 2012, a group of neuroscientists from the UK and Germany tested which sounds upset the human brain most, and published the results of their study in the Journal of Neuroscience. The researchers put 16 people in an MRI machine and monitored what happened in their brains while they heard each of 74 different sounds. Then they asked these unlucky participants to rate which of the noises they found most annoying. Here are the most cringe-worthy sounds, according to this research:

1. A knife on a bottle

2. A fork on a glass

3. Chalk on a chalkboard

4. A ruler on a bottle

5. Nails on a chalkboard

6. A female scream

7. An anglegrinder (power tool)

8. Squealing brakes on a bicycle

9. A crying baby

10. An electric drill

I Live for the Applause

Perhaps out of guilt, the researchers also played the participants some less skin-crawling sounds. Here were the four noises that participants rated as the least irritating:

1. Applause

2. A baby laughing

3. Thunder

4. Water flowing

The researchers noticed that annoying sounds coincided with more activity in one certain part of the participants' brains. In addition to the auditory cortex (which processes sound), the amygdala's activity was directly proportional to how awful the sound was. This part of the brain deals with emotions, so it would make sense that more annoying sounds might activate this emotional zone.

Strangest of all, the researchers found that the annoying sounds all landed within a specific frequency range: between 2,000 and 5,000 Hz, which is pretty high pitched. "This is the frequency range where our ears are most sensitive," Dr. Sukhbinder Kumar, the paper's author from Newcastle University, said. "Although there's still much debate as to why our ears are most sensitive in this range, it does include sounds of screams which we find intrinsically unpleasant."

The jury is out on what that means, if anything. One evolutionary theory holds that higher pitches more closely resemble the alarm calls our ancestors may have heard. They would have needed to spring into action after hearing the alarming squeal of a chimpanzee, for instance.

Though it's anyone's guess why a knife on a bottle is unsettling to the ear, this research does have some practical lessons. "This work sheds new light on the interaction of the amygdala and the auditory cortex," the study's lead author, Professor Tim Griffiths, said in a press release. "This might be a new inroad into emotional disorders and disorders like tinnitus and migraine in which there seems to be heightened perception of the unpleasant aspects of sounds."

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

Eager to hear more (pun intended!)? Check out Lydia Denworth's "I Can Hear You Whisper: An Intimate Journey Through the Science of Sound and Language." The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible! We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto March 15, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.