The 10 Worst Sounds In The World

February 4, 2020

It’s true that GARY STEEL is especially sensitive to sound. Here’s a selection of sonic emissions that drives him to the brink.


Could you live right next to a motorway?

If you’re the kind of person who can quite happily live in a house right next to a motorway, or in an apartment with soundproofing so inadequate that you can hear the neighbour’s toilet flushing, then you’re not sound-sensitive. But some of us are. Oddly, many of us sound-sensitive types love rocking out to loud music on our stereos, but there’s a catch: the acoustics have to be just-so, the volume level set precisely, and the music selection has to be just right, not some fucking tinfoil-voiced Autotune piece of generic crap.

The sound-sensitive live in a frightening and destabilising world. Constant exposure to really annoying sounds can drive us to extreme reactions that the sound-insensitive can’t even imagine.

So, without further ado, here’s my selection of the worst sounds imaginable; the kind of sounds that could drive a sane person to homicide or suicide.

  1. Babies crying.
Babies crying: possibly the worst sound ever invented

There’s actually nothing on earth more annoying than a baby crying. Babies are born with the ability to create the kind of grating tones that adults are pre-programmed to react to. They’re unignorable. Long before I became a dad I hated that sound, and I was one of those people who would grumble and mutter and complain if a baby’s attention-demanding cries pierced the sanctity of my special relaxing time in a favourite café. Then I bit the bullet and had a kid. And another. And I discovered that hearing your own baby crying is a thousand times worse. Because you love that wee thing and you’re torn between the instinct to nurture and protect, and the great desire to smash the source of the noise. Of course, you don’t follow the latter path because you don’t believe in violence, but when the crying goes on and on and it’s the quiet hours and the baby just won’t shut the fuck up and it’s the fourth night with practically no sleep and you’re supposedly on deadline but you can’t think through the bleating even when you’re trying to work at the other end of the house with all the doors shut…


2. Kids screaming.

Kids screaming can resemble Mariah Carey on helium

I love little people. I really do. And I’d die for my kids, I really would. But young children’s voices are too damn high-pitched and too damn loud. My 5-year-old has been working on her pipes since she was a baby and now she can squeal like Mariah Carey on helium, except louder. Much louder. And she has the knack of doing it unexpectedly when she’s millimetres away from my eardrum, or (possibly worse) in the resonant confines of the bathroom. Bath time has become nightly torture, with at least one or two surprise blasts of sonic squeals that literally make me want to curl up in a little ball and fade into oblivion. In short, every time this happens, it really hurts, and every time it happens, I’m hoping like hell that I’m not losing the top-end of my hearing ability due to these brutal irruptions. Now I know why old people are so often deaf: their children did it to them. Bastards.


3. Cicadas.

Cicadas – tinnitus with wings

Otherwise known as tinnitus with wings, these creatures can live underground as grubs for decades only to eventually emerge for a few days, horny as hell and determined to fuck themselves silly before they expire through the sheer unexpected excursion of it all. I shouldn’t wish ill on them because it’s not like they’ve got long to get their ends off but man, why do they have to produce that God-awful, indescribably annoying grinding-on-metallic-sheeting kind of noise? Apparently, each country has its own variation of cicadas and some make quite a pretty sound. New Zealand cicadas are the worst, and the problem is compounded in years when they’re bounteous and their horrendous noise turns into a kind of hellish choir of insect libidinousness. The one positive aspect is that they can sometimes drown out my onboard tinnitus.


4. Bad booty bass.

Booty bass

In fact, any bass – especially bass where the knob of a really crappy pair of speakers is turned up to 10 – that oozes and throbs through the hallowed walls of my abode, uninvited. I just can’t stand it. I once flatted above a party flat that never played anything other than Bob Marley, and it put me off his music for years. Of course, all I could really “hear” was the ill-defined whomp of bass through the floorboards with a smidgen of midrange to add to my annoyance. It’s always pissed me off that people don’t give a fuck about sonic leakage, and in fact, many perpetuate it purposefully by placing party speakers outdoors. So, whether the boom-boom is coming from across the valley or from the adjoining apartment, it’s NO FUN. It also can’t be dealt with by earplugs because the vibrations get in your bones and keep niggling away at any semblance of wellbeing you may have had earlier. Some of the worst nights of my life have been when I was trying to get a bit of much-needed shut-eye with a party going on nearby. And it’s always, ALWAYS terrible music (Bob Marley excepted, of course).


5. Roosters at 4am.

Roosters gonna do what roosters gonna do

Several of the worst nights of my life that should have been the best nights of my life staying at a Pacific Island paradise were utterly ruined by the perpetual crowing of oversexed roosters who just never shut the fuck up. So much for the idea that roosters crow only at dawn, these avian devils screeched and cawed most of the night through. They’d go quiet just long enough for me to start sinking back to sleep, only to be wrenched out of dreamland soon after by another round of braggadocio. The especially galling thing about roosters is the lack of variation in their territorial boasting. The only real difference between one psyche-splitting call and another is the occasional slight adjustment to the volume.


6. Skateboards on footpaths.

Skateboards on footpaths make a sick-making sound

I admit that this is an odd one and that perhaps it verges on a phobia because I’ve never met anyone else who harbours such distaste for the sound of skateboards. I don’t know precisely what causes it, but it’s doubtless something to do with the material the wheels are made out of and what happens when they roll on a certain type of pavement. It’s a sick, chundering type of sound that frankly, makes me feel completely deranged. I can’t imagine anyone who values sound in an aesthetic sense wanting anything to do with skateboarding.


7. Buses in sonically confined city streets.

Buses make intolerable noise and smell bad too

All you need is an inner-city street that isn’t very wide with tall buildings on either side and verandas, and you have the perfect conditions for the horrendous sound (and smell) of buses roaring so loudly that it feels like the noise is giving your brain a root canal. It’s not helped by the fact that bus drivers are often on such tough timetables that they feel they have to put the pedal to the metal, without it seems, any understanding of the discomfort they cause to pedestrians. I can’t even sit in a K’rd (Auckland) café or restaurant with open doors anymore because of the confounded noise of buses. Trucks and 4WDs can be just as bad but there are fewer of them in built-up areas.


8. Ambulance sirens in sonically confined city streets.

Ambulances save lives but imperil hearing

Self-explanatory, really. There’s a very real paradox in the fact that ambulances and fire engines are there to help people, and yet their sirens are often set so loud that they’re way above-recommended decibel exposure levels, and can doubtless cause hearing damage to unwitting pedestrians. Ambulance sirens are very similar to the squealing of my 5-year-old’s voice at its loudest, and the effect is the same. But where I can never anticipate the moment my daughter will be at her damaging loudest, happily with ambulances I usually see them coming and often have time to duck into a shop or at least jam my hands against my ears in preparation for the one-sided sonic warfare.


9. Dogs barking incessantly.

Barking dogs should bite the slack hand that feeds them

While booty bass at 4 am is so annoying it could cause a murder, dogs barking incessantly day and night are possibly even worse. But probably not: hearing unwanted bass is particularly galling to a music lover, because something that can be a thing of beauty and joy is so deteriorated sonically. But dogs barking are galling on several levels. The first is that, as with roosters, there’s almost no variation in the sound of a dog bark. If it’s a small dog it will yap with the same tones until the cows come home. If it’s a big dog it’ll woof in a cloddish fashion for as long as it takes. I love dogs, but it’s an idiotic sound. The second is the knowledge that someone is responsible for the dogs, should have taken the necessary steps to train them not to bark, and is probably away from the house and not giving them the attention they require. Fuckers. So there’s a fair bit to process in anger about barking. I never feel anger at the dogs, just their owners.


10. Lawnmowers whining endlessly in suburbia.

Mowers: blight of suburbia

When I escaped from the sleepy suburbia of Hamilton in the late ‘70s – along with the sick-making whine of hundreds of lawnmowers every Saturday – I was never going to look back. It was Wellington, Melbourne, New York and Tokyo for me! Forty years later I’m back in (remote) suburbia and stuck amidst the hellish whine of lawnmowers again. Except that it’s WORSE now. Back then, people worked all day every day and went to church on Sunday, so the only lawn mowing day was Saturday. In the 21st century, there is no “rest day” so there’s no respite from the giant-bees-chewing-on-grass-vomit sound of mowers. As soon as one stops, another infernal machine splutters into life. Every day of the week, at almost any time except when it’s dark. Some guy even mowed his lawn in the dark with a torch the other night. It’s just not right.


11. The sound of a stylus not tracking a piece of vinyl properly.

The sound of a stylus that needs replacing

Okay, this is number 11 and I promised only 10. But this is especially for stereo nerds because it’s the sound that no one wants to hear. When you care about music and its sonic integrity you don’t want unintended distortion, because it’s really depressing, especially when you don’t have a replacement stylus at the ready and the nearest one is a three-and-a-half-hour drive away. And it’s even worse when you’ve just placed your needle on the platter of a special half-speed mastered, primo heavy slab of vinyl that’s probably really soft so that when a ruined needle scrapes its way through it’ll never sound the way it should because effectively, it’s been molested by a nasty, sharp, gauging piece of metal that has no respect for its inherent beauty.


What’s YOUR worst sound in the universe? Do let me know. I’m all ears.



Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here


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