The idea of how we perceive and translate sound has always intrigued me. It’s an integral part of how I like to approach sound design. If you can understand how you want your audience to feel, you as the sound designer have the utmost control over the emotions of your audience. That in and of itself is one of the most powerful tools in the television and filmmaking process.

The study of the interaction between how our ears and brain respond to sound is called psychoacoustics or sound perception.  As audience members, we can perceive sound as being a pleasing experience or not and anywhere in between.  But, this perception isn't formed merely by using our ears.  The connections between our ears, brain, and nervous system let us feel the effects of sound with our entire body.  This concept of physically hearing and psychologically perceiving sound helps to connect us to the television show, movie, or video game we might be enjoying. 

The Concept

While writing my Master’s Thesis on the effects of sound on our perception, I came across this really interesting concept about how we perceive fingernails on a chalkboard. Now take a second and let’s imagine what that sound sounds like. The very idea of nails on a chalkboard (and sounds very similar to that), makes my skin crawl. It’s a very unsettling and very uncomfortable experience, throughout the entire body.

The whole premise of this article is that it is not the high, “noisy, scraping part of the sound,” that makes us so uncomfortable.  It’s actually the overload of frequencies that are within the frequency range of human speech (2,000-4,000 Hz). Our ear canals are designed to amplify those frequencies and when a screech on a chalkboard is generated, the sound is intensified within our ears to a painful effect. When these frequencies are removed from the sound, the sound is actually more pleasant to listen to, if you can imagine that. With that being said, I wanted to see if there was actually any truth to this idea and decided to put you and myself through this very uncomfortable experience.

The Experiment

I sought out the most skin-crawling examples of nails on chalkboard and similar sounds that I could find – the example of the Styrofoam is the absolute worst. I then brought them into Pro Tools and with a simple graphic equalizer, removed the frequencies from 2000 Hertz to 4000 Hertz, like the article suggested.

The Results

Here are all the original sounds and their equalized versions (you have been warned):

Much to my surprise, it actually worked. All four of these examples seemed to sound less unnerving, and I could actually get through listening to them without having chills sent through my body. There is a caveat to this however. I can’t help but wonder if I’m interpreting these sounds as more comfortable because of the frequency range removal or because I’m psychologically telling myself that they are. That, I guess we will never really know for sure.


Main image credited to geralt.

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