Demystifying Sound

What does science have to say about noisy neighbors, outrageously priced violins, and earworms?


It’s all about the bass

Most people who find their noisy neighbor’s music troublesome complain specifically about the bass. When you’re waiting at the stoplight and some cool guy in his sports car has his music on blast beside you, it’s also inevitably the bass pumping into your ears. Do people who enjoy loud music have a healthy appetite for bass?

Chances are that a noisy neighbor hasn’t adjusted their speakers’ bass levels just to annoy you. Rather, the bass elements in a song travel farther than treble sounds. Bass is made up of lower frequencies, which have longer wavelengths. In contrast, high-frequency sounds, or treble, have shorter wavelengths.

Sound decays as it travels across distances. Sound waves encounter obstructions that absorb the vibrations, like walls, curtains, and rugs in an apartment. High-frequency sounds are more easily absorbed by smaller, less dense objects. Lower frequencies, on the other hand, are less prone to losing their energy to solid objects because their longer wavelengths allow them to travel farther. By the time the loud music reaches your apartment unit, the higher frequencies will have decayed, leaving you to enjoy – or not – just the bass.

Your personal concert hall

The shower is a magical place. Here, not only can you scrub yourself clean in minutes, you also transform into an impressive vocalist upon entry. If you’ve ever admired your singing voice in the shower, you’re not alone. And you’re not entirely wrong either.

But why do we sound better in the shower? It has to do with the way shower enclosures are made. Their relatively small size allows our voice to bounce against shower walls without traveling far. In turn, the walls’ smooth, hard tiles effectively reflect the sound waves we make when singing. The sound waves bounce around quickly before reaching our ears, producing a fuller, more powerful sound.

When sound waves bounce off walls in quick succession, numerous echoes are created. This blurs and prolongs sounds, smoothing out variations in our voice and correcting the notes where we sang slightly off-tune. Unfortunately, these effects are only perceived by whoever is in the shower. Everyone else just hears our normal voice, without the assistance of a shower’s acoustics.

What makes a bad singer?

Have you ever wondered why some people can’t seem to hold a tune? Apparently, some music researchers have sought to answer this question. Studies have ruled out poor vocal cords as the culprit. We also know that perception is not usually the problem, as most of us appreciate good music even though we’re not expert musicians.

The leading theory at the moment has to do with ‘imitative deficit.’ Our brain knows the correct pitch we should be singing, but somehow, it’s instructing our voice to produce a different note. Our ears can detect that we’re off-key, but a mismatch in the brain prevents it from getting to the right note.

Poor singing goes beyond pitch. In 2004, William Hung joined the singing competition American Idol and was immediately dismissed as a poor singer. In fact, Hung hit the right notes from his chosen song, Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs.” But his thin voice didn’t pair well with the song, and having an accent meant that he enunciated words differently.

The million-dollar violin

Among musicians, Stradivarius violins are in a league of their own. First, there remain only a few hundred of these violins. Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari made them between the late 1600s and early 1700s, especially for royalty. One can only imagine the meticulousness and dedication the luthier would have poured into his craft.

Stradivari was said to tweak different elements of his violins, like their shape and size, in his constant quest for improvement. Experts agree that the elite craftsmanship that went into these instruments paid off – Stradivarius violins respond to the slightest touch, producing elegant, precise sounds. Due in part to their rarity and incomparable quality, these instruments sell for millions of dollars nowadays.

Why can’t modern-day manufacturers replicate Stradivarius violins? Scientists have suggested that the renowned luthier may have used a special ‘secret’ varnish to treat the wood he used, though others have debunked this claim. Yet, there are theories that perhaps it was the wood itself that was special. Since temperatures during Stradivari’s time were much cooler, tree barks were denser, allowing for higher-quality sounds when the same wood was used for violins. If proven true, this might just make Stradivarius violins even more valuable.

Surprised by the sound of your own voice

People often cringe when they hear themselves on a recording, not so much because of what they’re saying, but because of how they sound. This experience is so common that there’s a name for it. ‘Voice confrontation’ occurs when you hear the sound of your own voice and dislike it. Scientists have an explanation for this.

We most often hear our voices straight from our mouths when we talk. And it’s this voice that we associate with ourselves. But due to the way this voice is transmitted to our brains, what we perceive differs from what other people hear.

Other people hear the sound waves our vocal cords produce once transmitted through the air. In contrast, when we hear our speaking voice, this sound is transmitted in two ways – first by air, but also internally, through our bones.

Because of the way our bones transmit vibrations throughout our body, the sounds delivered to our ears and brains are rich in low-frequency signals. What we hear is a fuller voice, lower in pitch than it actually is. So, when we hear our voice on a recording, it comes across as unusually high-pitched, making us cringe because it doesn’t align with our self-identity.

Can’t get you out of my head

Perhaps the least enjoyable music-related experience is having a song stuck in your head. It remains on repeat, regardless of how hard you try to shake it off. This is especially annoying when it’s a song you don’t even like. Scientists call this ‘stuck tone syndrome,’ but it’s more widely known as an earworm.

Though the phenomenon is well-researched, experts still aren’t sure why it happens. We do know that catchier songs are more prone to become earworms, and we know that hearing the song or a snippet of it can trigger the event. Earworms tend to appear when we let our guard down – when we’re feeling good, being nostalgic, or are otherwise inattentive.

But what’s happening in the brain while this happens is a mystery. Experts suggest that perhaps neural circuits related to the song may be stuck on playback mode in our brain.

Until researchers find an explanation, what can you do to get that earworm out of your head? Well, don’t resist it. The more you do, the stickier it gets. Instead, listen to the song or sing it in its entirety to shake off the itch. If this doesn’t work, an activity that requires concentration might help distract your brain.

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