I was struck recently by this video of a TEDxUCLA talk by Dan Blumstein entitled, “The Sound of Fear”.

He narrates his findings as a behavioral ecologist of sounds that animals make when they are experiencing stress (or hear alert calls). He also studies behavioral responses of animals to different sounds [1]. His favorite model system is the marmot, but later on did collaborations with people in the communication studies sector to research on what kinds of sound illicit a certain feeling to human subjects.

One of his key findings include the presence of non-linear frequency changes called noise. Noise, he mentions, is akin to distorted sounds when you overwork your speakers by setting the volume too high. It is the distortion that your voice makes when you scream.

He then looked at different movie sounds and the response of viewers to these sounds and concluded that sad movies tend to suppress noisy sounds. In another study of short sound clips, he mentions that a noisy sound clip increased arousal (or heightened alertness) in test subjects. [2]

Surely, this demonstrates how sound perception can change our behavioral patterns. In the end he asks a question, what is the sound of joy sound like? What is the sound of sadness sound like?

That’s for the next experiment.

As a music afficionado, I want to learn these things about auditory perception which then needs some knowledge on music theory, acoustics (physics) and eventually psychology of music.

Other things that come to mind include (1) music performance: what is it that makes us say “we were moved by the performance” or “that is so emotional” from the acoustic (physics) point of view; (2) Learning: why classical music vs. heavy metal, (3) intelligent systems: How can you teach a machine to identify important signals from background? how do humans differentiate which sound information is important? (4) philosophical: phenomenology of noise and silence.

How about you? Which sounds make you tick?


1.Biedenweg TA, Parsons MH, Fleming PA, Blumstein DT (2011) Sounds Scary? Lack of Habituation following the Presentation of Novel Sounds. PLoS ONE 6(1): e14549. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0014549

2. Blumstein, D.T., Bryant, G.A., Kaye, P. The sound of arousal in music is context-dependent. 2012. Biol. Lett. 8, 744–747