Final: Noxious noises

Of all the weeks’ journeys and exploration in this class, I found myself particularly drawn to the power that sound has on our own psychology and well-being. So far, we have seen how some sounds can be awe-inspiring, soothing, and even therapeutic: bustling cities, joyful laughter, soothing music, peaceful forests, rolling oceans. I am extremely excited to see how Honors 177’s own Kelsey Jian is taking it upon herself to learn just how sounds can translate to human healing and therapy!

But on the other hand, I want to explore what may be called noxious sounds—those sounds that, rather than calming or soothing, instead serve to disturb, annoy, or even hurt their listeners. I think we are all aware of these: nails on chalkboard, screeching Styrofoam, wailing sirens, squeaking hinges, crashing construction, and the like. A quick search on the internet landed me on an article from Explore Life’s Katherine Diggory titled “When Does Noise Become Noxious?”, wherein she explores what she names is the “right to hear what we want.” One particularly fascinating aspect of her article was this principle of health damage caused by noise: that is, she cites a study done by American neuroscientist Shelly Carson, wherein noise exposure significantly affected test scores of an experimental group of “highly-talented students” compared to the control group, who was not exposed to any noise. While certainly an interesting prospect, I am not sure what to think of the initial report—I will have to see for myself what the implications are.

A broader focus on occupational noise may tell us more about how sound exposure can detriment our health. Some immediate examples that come to mind are construction and manufacturing: beyond eventual hearing loss, I think it would be fascinating to explore other more subtle health effects—particularly to mental health, if applicable. For instance, a review by Basner, et. al. (2014) notes that the pervasiveness of noise correlates excessive exposure to hair-cell and nerve damage. But even more interestingly, the authors present evidence of what they call “non-auditory effects” of noise exposure: annoyance, insomnia, daytime sleepiness, hospital healthcare performance, and the like. I imagine that effects like these are somewhat difficult to study and isolate; but I am confident that at least a few works are out there that can shed some light on how our auditory environment (e.g., city center versus nature preserve) can both benefit and detriment our physical and mental health.

The connection between sound and art was easily one of my personal favorite class sessions we have had this quarter. Music and what we call “calming” sounds truly fascinate me, especially since, in my opinion, the mathematical and empirical models of sound have not quite yet explained the emotional and intangible effects that some sounds can have on people. Why do we hate the sound of Styrofoam; nails on a chalkboard; ambulance sirens? And what can constant exposure to these sounds mean for our health? I do not know if I will be able to answer these questions in the next few weeks, but I certainly hope to try.


Basner, M., Babisch, W., Davis, A., Brink, M., Clark, C., Janssen, S., & Stansfeld, S. (2014). Auditory and non-auditory effects of noise on health. Lancet (London, England)383(9925), 1325–1332.

Diggory, K. (2020, October 13). When does noise become noxious? Explore Life.