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When Does Sound Become Noise?

Last week we talked about what sound is, by its purest definitions. But nuisance noise isn’t just sound – it’s sound that causes distress. So where is the line? How does a sound go from being ignorable background noise, to a nuisance, to noise pollution, to something worthy of lodging an official complaint? Is it a decibel level? A duration? Pitch? Or does it go deeper than that? Let’s take a look.

A Quick Refresher

First, let’s quickly go over what sound is. When an object (whether that’s someone’s vocal cords or a jackhammer) vibrates, it sends those vibrations through the air as sound waves, which are measured in decibels (dB). Those sound waves are picked up by our ears, and if they’re too intense, or too high dB, they can cause lasting damage or loss of hearing.

But high-decibel noise isn’t the only kind that can become a nuisance.

What Sounds Cause Distress?

This is a complex topic. A sound that is relaxing for one person may be deeply distressing for another – think of a thunderstorm as an example. This results from a psychological phenomenon called misophonia – whereby the brain’s amygdala, the emotive centre, takes over for the normal noise processing centre upon hearing particular sounds. This can cause unwarranted annoyance, aggression, or impulsive reactions for anyone with a misophonia related to a particular sound.

The exact source of misophonia is not well understood – in fact, it’s not considered a psychiatric condition yet, with many debates still raging as to its diagnostic criteria – but it is real, and it impacts many of us to different extents. Some noises are just kind of annoying, while others can cause anger or even panic attacks.

In a 2017 survey, South African health news website Health24 conducted a reader survey to find the 10 noises that disrupt people’s lives the most. They were, in no particular order:

  1. Crying babies – while most parents will have a measured reaction to the harsh cries of a young child, for some people there’s nothing more grating.

  2. Chalk on a blackboard – a classic that you won’t hear very often these days, it nonetheless brings up some visceral emotions in some people.

  3. A dentist’s drill – one that everyone can relate to; it brings up traumatic memories in just about all of us.

  4. Power tools – if we’re doing our own spot of weekend DIY, we don’t bat an eyelid. But if the neighbour is doing it? Or a nearby construction site? Too early or too late? No thank you.

  5. Mosquitos – a relaxing summer night can be immediately ruined when we hear this buzz, and its association with the subsequent mosquito bites gets our defences up.

  6. Sirens – an interesting case, sirens from emergency vehicles or security systems are almost designed to induce misophonia as a way to get you to move out of their path. When that’s not necessary, though, they can become deeply disruptive.

  7. Alarm clocks – another classic, nobody likes the sound of their alarm, but to some it’s more infuriating than others.

  8. Snoring – ever had a chronic snorer in the house? Or as a neighbour, even? Losing sleep is never fun, especially when a grating noise is the cause.

  9. Loud breathing or sniffling – some claim these last two to be the originators of academic interest into misophonia. For many, there’s nothing more annoying.

  10. Loud chewing – for many a sign of rudeness, but for some this causes deep anger.

These sounds cover a broad range of sources, but they are all things we’d encounter in our everyday lives. What, then, causes these normal noises to trigger misophonic reactions?

What Causes Nuisance Noise?

The truth is that any noise which disrupts your life is a nuisance noise, no matter what is causing it, how often it repeats, how loud it is, or any other factor. Researchers are still exploring misophonia and its origins in our brain chemistry, and have yet to find concrete evidence of root causes, but they are finding distinct symptoms which develop as a result of hearing a nuisance noise. These include increased heart rate, hypervigilance, and activation of the brain’s salience network, which is partially responsible for our ability to focus on or filter out stimuli. Altogether, these are concurrent with a fight or flight response, which we know to cause physical and mental problems when activated too often.

At the end of the day, noises affect different people in different ways, but some noises affect more people more severely than others. If you’re experiencing constant nuisance noise, you have tools at your disposal to resolve the issue. The first step is always to try a direct and peaceful resolution with the cause of the noise. But if that’s not possible, NoiseNet can help. Head over to to learn more.

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