Nails on a Chalkboard

“Nails on a chalkboard” is a sound that all of us are familiar with. It has become one of the most stereotypical unpleasant sounds. The worst part about nails on a chalkboard is how this sound seems to draw a physical reaction out of the body. Whenever I hear the sound of nails on a chalk board chills creep over me, I cringe, and I shudder. Even thinking about the sound creeps me out. I can only speak for myself, but I’m pretty sure this sound creates the same effect for many others as well. Or maybe I’m just weird, who knows. Regardless of the physical effects, the high pitched screetching sound produced is one that most people do not find pleasant. We all hate this sound. But why? What makes this sound so awful? How can a sound cause the body to cringe?  Musicologists Michael Oehler and Christoph Reuter have offered an explanation.

The researchers started their study by having the participants listen to a variety of discomforting sounds and then rating them. Ultimately, the least pleasant sounds ended up being fingernails on a chalkboard and chalk being rubbed on a slate. They then played these top two least pleasing sounds and monitored physical reactions within the participants such as heart rate, blood pressure, and electrical conductivity of the skin. The results showed that the skin conductivity significantly changed when hearing the sounds, which means there really is a physical change (the cringe feeling) caused by nails on a chalkboard.

In the study, the researchers found that the most unpleasant frequencies were found within the range 2000 to 4000 Hz. This frequency range is interesting because it is note excessively high or low. It is a somewhat average frequency range. Many characteristics of human speech are found within this range. The researchers think that the shape of our ear canals may have evolved overtime to amplify sounds within this range in order to help with communication. Unfortunately, the nails on chalk board sound lies within this range and therefore also gets amplified. Although this is just speculation, the reason nails on the board sounds so awful may be due to the shape of our ears.

I thought this was a pretty interesting study to read. However, I’m kind of disappointed they didn’t explain what exactly about the sound causes us to cringe. At least I found out that I’m not the only one who physically does not like that sound. Now that its been confirmed that we cringe, I want to know why. I must be something psychological. For me, whenever I hear the sound of nails on a chalkboard I think of what it actually feels like to scratch your nails on a chalk board. The feeling of nails on a chalkboard is almost as bad as the sound. I think the thought of the feeling of scratching the chalkboard is what causes people to cringe. However, I’m not equipped enough to test that hypothesis nor do I really want to. Hopefully someone else comes out with some new research soon to close up some of the loose ends.

Village Symphony

I wrote this over spring break in my journal:

On the outskirts of the San Jeronimo district of Cusco, Peru sits a tiny village where I am living for the week.  It’s not within the urban limits of Cusco proper so the lifestyle out here is much different.  For one thing, it is much quieter.  The city of Cusco is a bustling, chaotic cacophony of trucks, people, motor bikes, storefronts selling and sorting goods, and even the crosswalks make an awful alarm noise when it is time to cross.  There aren’t really lanes in Cusco so cars are speeding all over the road around each other and taking turns they aren’t necessarily supposed to be taking.  This, as one can imagine leads to a chorus of vehicle horns at any given moment.  But these overpowering noises are exclusive to the city limits.

As we drive out to the village where the house is that I am staying at, the noises of the city fade away.  It takes a long dirt road through cornfields to get to the village.  If you are walking along that road the only two sounds you hear are the barking of the numerous stray dogs that live all over Peru and the occasional passing car or truck.  If you are driving on this road all you hear is the bumping along of the car down the pothole-ridden road.

One you get into the village and spend just a few minutes outsides, the relaxing array of sounds becomes apparent.  The first thing you notice are the birds.  Their beautiful songs seem to be in conversation with one another, each bird waiting its turn to speak.  What you notice after that is the silence.  For the most part the only sounds you will hear consecutively are the birds.  Everything else seems to be just a quick sound in the distance, breaking the silence for only a moment before the village noises return to their serene state.  These interrupting sounds are often the passing of a car down the main road of the area.  The most common are large trucks, pickup trucks and the little taxi vehicles that barely make it through the potholes. Another very subtle noise you hear are the conversations in smooth Spanish of the passersby.  This is common as most Peruvians’ mode of transportation is walking.  These conversations are never loud, although when school gets out and the children walk home there is more noise.  You can hear them playing in the streets as they journey home, often miles from their school.  The last common breaker of silence is the rain.  Every year I visit Cusco during its rainy season.  This means that the weather forecast for every day simply says rain.  Of course it might not rain at all or it might rain all day long.  Most often it comes in short-lasting but powerful rain showers.  When the rain comes to the village it overpowers the soundscape at that moment.  All you can hear is the pounding of the rain.  My first night here I fell asleep to the constant drumming of the rain on the tin roof of the house.  To me, it sounded like the most beautiful and relaxing symphony that I’ve ever heard.

No Instruments, No Problem

Recent years have seen a skyrocketing of interest in acapella music, or music “without instrumental accompaniment.” Notorious groups like Pentatonix and Straight No Chaser perform contemporary music using only their voices, and they maintain popularity through unique renditions of well-known songs. The entire premise of the 2012 hit movie “Pitch Perfect” is based upon college acapella groups, and a sequel is being released into theaters this May. Even Davidson has multiple acapella groups on campus, showing the popularity of acapella music among current college students and within mainstream media.

One acapella performer that I recently discovered online is Mike Tompkins. Mike Tompkins is an acapella musician and producer who garnered fame from his highly-successful Youtube song covers. Tompkins does covers of popular songs using his body as the only instrument. He is able to record himself multiple times, and later edit the sound to form a complete song. I think his videos are amazing, and I had to remind myself while listening to them that no instruments were actually being played. Below I am posting two of his covers- the first is a mash up of One Republic’s “Feel Again” and Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days are Over” and the other is a recent cover of “Uptown Funk” featuring Mark Ronson and Max Schneider. Even though “Uptown Funk” is overplayed at this point and you are all probably tired of it, I think this specific cover is worth the listen as I could not believe that there were no instruments used in the recording of the song.

This third video shows how Tompkin made the “Feel Again/Dog Days” cover, and I found it interesting. His director for the video explains that many TV screens playing the various song parts had to sync together in order to record the video. To me, this would be a painstaking process as the video shows that all the parts must sync perfectly, and only then can Tompkin record the singing live on top of the other parts.

I think Tompkin’s videos underscore the “sound studio fetish” that we discussed in class. Up until watching these videos, I did not really understand this so-called “fetish,” but the final products of Tompkin’s recording sessions have helped me to better grasp this concept. The studio must possess a special quality if one man can use it to imitate fifteen instruments, sing, and then piece these all together as a song. To me, it seems there is a very high level of skill and talent required to operate such sound studio machinery properly and proficiently.

I believe it is also worth noting the dichotomy between Tompkin’s recordings and more traditional music. It seems his dismissal of musical instruments is compensated for by his use of sound studio editing, whereas other music uses more instruments and (somewhat) less editing. Perhaps this shift in musical medium (instrument to sound editing) is inevitable with society’s continuation of technological progress, or maybe it speaks to the emergence of a more mainstream sound studio “fetish.” Perhaps this is just acapella’s fifteen minutes of mainstream fame. Regardless, this music successfully demonstrates musical talent and the capabilities of sound studio editing.

Road Trip Sounds

It’s probably pretty safe to say that everyone who’s ever road-tripped has their own idiosyncrasies and traditions, whether it’s certain games with billboards followed by parents trying to get everyone to play the Quiet Game, which is really just a mildly polite way of telling your kids to shut up, or listening to certain albums or songs. I mean don’t get me wrong, Florida to North Carolina is barely a road trip, probably doesn’t even fall in the spectrum, it’s pretty much just a long trek across Southern highways that seem to have been under construction ever since their initial phasing, but I’ve noticed that I’ve formed habits throughout these drives home for breaks or whenever, and I’ve especially noticed the sound surrounding me constantly when I drive.

Firstly, I think pretty much everyone has a certain song or album that they constantly listen to while traveling or would choose to, I know whenever I fly, I have to listen to Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea but that’s just because I’m corny and lame. I’ve noticed these patterns for road trips though, with a few randoms I really have a certain formula for the music I listen to, and the more interesting part is that I have different patterns for driving there and driving back here. A few things stay consistent though, for some reason I always have to listen to these albums in sequential order: Rozwell Kid’s Unmacho, Snowing’s I Could Do Whatever I Wanted If I Wanted, and of course Weezer’s Pinkerton. I do this mainly because these are three of my favorite albums of all-time that I think of as a conceptual trilogy, with the first two being incredibly derivative of Pinkerton but offering more cues to their time period and scenes: 2012 lo-fi/bedroom rock and 2008 New England emo respectively. The other album I make sure to listen to is Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in fact, I rarely ever listen to it outside of these long drives, mainly because I feel as if I listen to it anywhere else I’m doing myself a disservice, as I probably am not paying as much attention to it as I should be, and that subtle stream of consciousness necessary for driving allows me almost complete and utter focus (I reserve just enough attention on the road to make sure whoever I’m driving and myself are safe) to bring about new revelations and connections every time I listen to it. While driving into North Carolina, I always make sure to listen to Glocca Morra’s song “y’all boots hats? (die angry)” mainly because the lyrics include “carolina, I think I love you” and once again I’m corny. Whilst driving in the middle of Florida at night about an hour from home, with the smell of the nightly Florida rain coming through the vents or just the heat lightning striking across the sky I can’t help but listen to Outkast’s “Spottieottiedopalicious”, that song pretty much just became anthemic to driving late at night in Florida over Summer or coming back over the bridge from surfing just as the sun-sets, it’s so relaxing and calming and I can’t put my finger on why it’s so necessary for every trip down to the Sunshine State.

Other sounds are much more apparent, if you’ve ever taken a ride in my car (a teal 1994 BMW hatchback with a convertible roof that was ripped off by the previous owner and is now just a simple plexiglass covering screwed in and caulked around the edges) you can’t miss the roar of the high pitched whistling coming from my roof, it’s really something else and I can’t help but laugh every time someone new gets in my car. While it annoys pretty much everyone else in the car that rides with me, I’ve found it a source of comfort while driving, I can’t explain it but I equate it to the hum of the air-conditioning or a dishwasher, there’s just something about a background noise with very indistinct sounds and low frequencies that seems to soothe me. Coming back from Spring Break a few night’s ago, everyone who I was driving was asleep, as they should’ve been considering we got back here at 4 AM on a Sunday, but that sound was really crucial in keeping me up, not that it’s abrasive and you can’t sleep through it, but there’s just some quality of it that makes me comfortable and makes me want to drive, probably because it’s so unique to my car, and I’m pretty much the only person who can drive it considering it has a pseudo-roof, no first gear, an oil leak, and plenty of other little flaws that make it so fun. Well, now that I’ve digressed into a love letter to my car, I’ll leave you with wondering what sounds or activities you pride yourself in continuing throughout road trips.

Ocean Sounds

Before taking this writing class, I had never payed a whole lot of attention to the sounds that surrounded me. Not necessarily the sounds I consciously hear, but background noise and the different properties of sound that we listen to in different ways. The reading about causal, semantic, and reduced listening has really stuck with me and I’ve tried to focus more on how I listen to the things going on around me.

For spring break, a group of my friends and I journeyed to a beach in southern Texas, which I had never thought of as a place for vacation until now. Who knew Texas had nice beaches? But that’s besides the point. We got in yesterday afternoon and after a day of traveling due to connection flights and delays, everyone was pretty tired by the time it got dark, not to mention the time change, even though it’s only an hour. On the upstairs balcony is a big hammock and I decided to take advantage of it. I burrito-ed myself in a blanket and swayed on the hammock under the dimming sky with my eyes closed, allowing myself to absorb the peaceful environment I had entered. It was in this moment that i truly listened to the ocean. Of course I had heard the ocean before and knew what the sound of waves crashing sounded like, but I really tried to pay attention to it this time, thinking all the while about the different ways of listening that we had talked about in class. I was more aware of the way the water moved. How when the waves crashed and the water came farther in shore that my ears adjusted to the loudness and through causal listening, I could tell that it was closer to me. But as the tide pulled back out, the sounds grew smaller and, without seeing the ocean, I knew it was moving away from me. It was interesting to me how I could tell so much about what the water was doing just by observing the changes in volume. In this instance, I was using both reduced and causal listening. Reduced listening because of the focus on the unique properties of the sounds and causal because of the recognition of the source of the sound and the way it moved.

It’s an interesting thing to pay particular attention to sounds I don’t typically think twice about. Background noise suddenly seems to have more meaning than before.

Lula Bell

Every time I walk past the Laundromat, from rich to baker or union, I hear the same soft high-pitched ringing. It’s not very loud, it doesn’t fluctuate, and it isn’t at any absurd decibel, but it bothers me.

Why is it that the most consistent sounds we hear are the most irritating? I could have thoughts screaming in my head, but what is actually driving me crazy is the person tapping their foot against the desk next to me at a steady beat. Truly we can’t have perverse enough minds to think that any completely steady sound that can be easily heard amongst the background noise is obtrusive. Although, maybe our minds are just so chaotic that the only way to keep us sane is to not offset the balance. Is that alluding to nature’s tendency towards entropy, or just an excuse to rationalize the psychotic reactions of the human mind? If science tells us that disorder is the natural state of all matter, then maybe we are programmed to assume robotically in sync sounds over repetition are unnatural and unsettling. However, if we were subconsciously aware of this natural state of disorder why wouldn’t it be true for all consistency? Instead, the sight of a steady repetitious action is mesmerizing. Watching the second’s hand tick by on a clock renders us in a trance, but as soon as the sound was to be known to us we would be bitterly jolted awake. Babies are lulled to sleep by the steady swing of miscellaneous objects above their heads, and the gentle sway of their cribs that carry the same momentum into every rock. It seems only perpetual sounds have the ability to perturb our minds for reasons unexplained. However, these cyclical sounds are not to be mistaken for a noise such as the humming of an air conditioner. At first thought, it sounds like a consistent hum. On the contrary, when you listen closely you can actually hear the random ticking and various noises fluctuating from the drone of air being spat out. In consequence, the noises are natural enough to be classified as keynote sounds and not bother you. Therefore, the sound of the air conditioner registers to you as consistent because as Schafer says, “ Noise pollution results when man does not listen carefully.”

Sometimes these keynote sounds are actually the most soothing ones. They do not disturb our thoughts, but instead they abide by the random state of nature and don’t disrupt the feng shui of living. Instead, it is the orderly synthesis of sound when we are not expecting any constructed composition that can disturbingly disrupt our thoughts. When a series of sounds, or just one sound carried out over any substantial duration, is posing as a natural action, it is the most upsetting because, in terms of “the higher laws of entropy”, it is not natural at all.

The Last Song Ever Played

I’ve spent over five hours today in a van with seven other people, most of whom I’d never previously met. We’re all heading to John’s Island, South Carolina for a six day spring break service trip. We’ve grown to know each other rather well in our time together in the van. Just recently, we decided to try a little activity – each of us was allowed to choose a song for a van playlist. We were allowed only one song, and each person’s song was supposed to be something to which he or she felt a strong connection; the songs were supposed to embody their respective people. The driver put it a different way, somewhat changing the meaning of the task. He said, “If you could play one song for everyone in the world before music disappeared forever, what would it be?” The result was an interestingly diverse group of songs, some more meaningful (in my opinion) than others. I think that some people were responding more to the original question than the modified one, and the whole thing was somewhat rushed and I’m sure each of us could think of many more candidate songs. Either way, the final playlist is below:


Place to Lay My Head – Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors – link

Coffee – Copeland – link

Sanctuary  – Frank Ticheli – link

For the Longest Time – Billy Joel – link

It Ain’t Yours to Throw Away – Nashville Cast – link

Deathbed – Relient K – link

Ballad of Love and Hate – Avett Brothers – link

Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen – link


The song selection strikes me as interesting. For the most part, the songs are somewhat folksy and acoustic. They also tend to have philosophical or religious themes. The fellow in the van that chose the second song on the list claimed that he admired the song since it was reflective of a simplicity of life that he desires but finds hard to reach at Davidson (or in the busy world in general).

I also think that this would be an interesting question to turn to others in the class- if music was going to cease to exist tomorrow (don’t worry, it probably isn’t), what song would you have the world listen to? If, rather than choosing a certain song, you had to describe the style or message of the song, how would you characterize these things? Rather than choosing something that’s very technically impressive but not truly meaningful, I, personally, would choose something very emotional and uplifting. It’d get huge bonus points if it’s musically interesting, of course, and it’d have to be at least decently enjoyable to listen to, but that wouldn’t be my main concern.


Begin watching the video at 17:00 for the purpose of this post, but feel free to watch the entire video it interests you.

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel detailing the author’s coming of age in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. The book was turned into a film in 2007, with Satrapi at the helm of the film’s animation and the audio aspects. The attached video “Persepolis ‘Making of,’” follows the creation of the film, and I found the audio portion of the film interesting in light of our class discussion today about recording studios. Recording studios are not exclusively made for music; this shows an example of another purpose of studios that we didn’t really focus on in class. The video shows the use of a recording studio for recording sounds or foley for the film, as well as the recording of the voices for the film’s characters. The first step in the filmmaking process required the actors to record their lines with Satrapi’s careful guidance. As seen in the scenes with Chiara Mastroianni, Satrapi makes the actress do multiple takes of lines in order to get the tone and sound of the delivery accurate to the vision of the artist. Satrapi was present for the recordings along with the director of the film and the technicians in order to best direct the actors to get the best possible product. Though they had the novel for reference, the actors really only had Satrapi’s direction in order to decide how their role would be played. The actors went to great lengths to make their representations as accurate as possible, as evidenced by the scene in which Mastroianni had Satrapi sing along to “The Eye of the Tiger” in order to make her rendition of the song just as off-key, yet triumphant, as Satrapi envisioned. Authenticity seemed to be Satrapi’s main concern with the animation and the audio components, even going so far as to tickle the young actress who played Satrapi as a child, rather than using a fake, forced laugh. These scenes helped me understand Meintjes’s description of the recording studio as a fetish because of the relationships between the actors, creative directors, and technicians in the video. These people are working towards a common goal, and Marjane’s artistic vision was so specific that others can only look on in amazement at how detailed the work was. However painstaking the process was, the result was so believable and authentic. The drawings for the animation were then done by hand (see first 17 minutes of the video) in accordance to the voice recordings. Finally, the foley, or everyday sound effects, were recorded along to the animation to make the scenes more realistic. The foley artist uses objects in a recording studio in an effort to recreate the sounds that would naturally occur in the film’s scenes. I never considered how background noises were created until I watched the artists stomping and clapping to imitate the sounds of a party. This video gives the viewer an inside look into the mystique of a recording studio, much in the same way that Meintjes’s article does.


The Cost of Recording

Two Fridays ago, I was lucky enough to receive one of Davidson’s free tickets to the Ingrid Michaelson concert at The Fillmore in Charlotte. The venue was small (capacity around 2000) but I was impressed by the artist’s vocals and level of crowd interaction. For those of you unfamiliar with Ingrid Michaelson, she is an indie-pop singer who released her first album in 2005, and her newest album, “Lights Out,” was released in 2014. Her songs get a fair amount of radio play, and the concert was a welcome mix of old and new material.

While re-watching some of the videos I recorded at the concert, my mind wandered to our recent discussion in class regarding the quality of MP3 compressed tracks versus uncompressed recordings of songs. I find it interesting that we can essentially miss parts of the song that become compressed, and wonder what other elements recorded music takes away from live performance. I noticed during the concert that Ingrid Michaelson’s voice sounded better (to me) than it does on her recordings. This could just be personal opinion, but I sensed an element of passion in her music live that I do not think is always conveyed through recordings. Is this due to the artificiality of the recording studio, serving to compress not only audio but also unquantifiable emotion? Am I just being a picky listener? Possibly both.

The most prominent example of this idea of recorded music being of lesser quality (during the concert) was when Ingrid Michaelson performed “Afterlife,” a song off of her new album. The way she introduced and sung the song conveyed a multitude of emotions to the audience, and I was curious as to the song’s origins. After doing some research online, I found out that she wrote the song as a tribute to her mother, who recently lost a battle with cancer. Although the music video, which consists of Ingrid helping various fans get over their fears, is feel-good, to me it does not validate the depth of the song that I perceived when hearing it performed live. I am posting both videos so others can judge for themselves.

Now clearly going to a concert will provide a different auditory experience than listening to the same artist on Rhapsody or Spotify would, but I am curious as to the effects of a sound studio on the creation of a song and an artist’s connection to it. I think this is something we will discuss in more detail next week, but I wonder to what extent a recording studio artificializes the organic, fundamental properties of music.

Furthermore, I found an article from the Oxford Journal in which the effects of live music versus recorded music on cancer patients were observed. The abstract of the paper states, “Results indicate the particular effectiveness of using live music to assist in relieving tension and promoting vigor. The human element inherent in live music is believed to be important.” I find this study in music therapy intriguing, and am curious as to how this “human element inherent in live music” changes from a live performance to a recording studio. Is there an element of music which cannot be conveyed through audio equipment that is present in the music performed for the cancer patients and Ingrid Michaelson’s performance? Although I have jumped around a bit here regarding organic versus artificial music, I look forward to discussing these topics in more detail in class this upcoming week.

Afterlife- Ingrid Michaelson (right click and save link to view video)