"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


Most horrible sound: vomiting, study finds

Jan. 24, 2007
Courtesy University of Salford
and World Science staff

Vom­it­ing is of­fi­cial­ly the most hor­ri­ble sound ev­er, ac­cord­ing to over a mil­lion votes cast world­wide in a mass on­line sci­ence ex­per­i­ment.

Vis­i­tors to a web­site called Bad­Vibes (www.­sound101.org)—a re­search proj­ect from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sal­ford, U.K.—lis­tened to sounds such as a den­tist’s drill, fin­ger­nails scrap­ing down a black­board and air­craft fly­ing, and rat­ed them for un­pleas­ant­ness. 

“This re­search has been fas­ci­nat­ing in gain­ing an in­sight in­to why peo­ple are re­pulsed by cer­tain sound­s—and how this dif­fers by gen­der, age and na­tion­al­i­ty. This is so im­por­tant be­cause noise sig­nif­i­cantly af­fects our qual­i­ty of life,” said Trev­or Cox of the Uni­ver­si­ty’s Acous­tic Re­search Cen­tre, who con­ducted the study. 

He added that he did it to ex­plore the pub­lic’s per­cep­tions of un­pleas­ant sounds and help in­form the acous­tics in­dus­try.

Al­though fin­ger­nails scrap­ing down a black­board is wide­ly claimed to be the worst sound, that screech came on­ly 16th out of 34 sounds au­di­tioned, he re­ported. Mi­cro­phone feed­back came a close sec­ond, with many ba­bies cry­ing com­ing third.

“I am driv­en by a sci­en­tif­ic cu­ri­os­i­ty about why peo­ple shud­der at cer­tain sounds and not oth­ers. We are pre-programmed to be re­pulsed by hor­ri­ble things such as vom­it­ing, as it is fun­da­men­tal to stay­ing alive to avoid nas­ty stuff,” Cox said.

“Sim­i­larly, the sound of fin­ger­nails down a black­board has been com­pared to the warn­ing cries of mon­keys—a­gain, some­thing that hu­mans might in­stinc­tive­ly re­spond to be­cause of our an­ces­try.”

One find­ing was that fe­males rat­ed 25 out of the 34 sounds as more aw­ful than males did. But ba­by cries were one of the few sounds males found worse than fe­males. “It could be that fe­males have be­come ha­bit­u­at­ed to the sound of ba­bies cry­ing,” said Cox, who is now plan­ning a si­m­i­lar ex­per­i­ment to rate the most pleas­ant sound. He hopes to use the re­sults to help in­form in­dus­try about how to en­gi­neer more pleas­ant sounds.

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Vomiting is officially the most horrible sound ever, according to over a million votes cast worldwide in a mass online science experiment. Visitors to a website called BadVibes (www.sound101.org)—a research project from the University of Salford, U.K.—listened to sounds such as a dentist’s drill, fingernails scraping down a blackboard and aircraft flying, and rated them for unpleasantness. “This research has been fascinating in gaining an insight into why people are repulsed by certain sounds—and how this differs by gender, age and nationality. This is so important because noise significantly affects our quality of life,” Trevor Cox of the University’s Acoustic Research Centre. He added that he conducted the experiment in order to explore the public’s perceptions of unpleasant sounds and help inform the acoustics industry. Although fingernails scraping down a blackboard is widely claimed to be the worst sound, that screech came only 16th out of 34 sounds auditioned, researchers said. Microphone feedback came a close second, with many babies crying coming third. “I am driven by a scientific curiosity about why people shudder at certain sounds and not others. We are pre-programmed to be repulsed by horrible things such as vomiting, as it is fundamental to staying alive to avoid nasty stuff,” Cox said. “Similarly, the sound of fingernails down a blackboard has been compared to the warning cries of monkeys—again, something that humans might instinctively respond to because of our ancestry.” One finding was that females rated 25 out of the 34 sounds more horrible than males. But baby cries were one of the few sounds males found worse than females. “It could be that females have become habituated to the sound of babies crying,” Cox speculated. Trevor, who is now planning a similar experiment to rate the most pleasant sound in the world, is hoping to use the results to help inform industry about how to engineer more pleasant sounds.