Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Difficulty of Describing Sounds

This blog post about recognizing the sounds of waves on the beach reminded me of something I have been meaning to talk about lately: the difficulty of verbalizing and describing sounds.

I constantly feel tongue-tied when it comes to describing sounds. I know what I'm hearing, but attempting to explain it to someone else is an entirely different story. It is a relief to me when someone recognizes right away what I'm talking about. For example, the other day Scotty and I were in our truck and we had the back window open. I could hear something, though I couldn't tell where it was coming from. Logically I knew it was likely a sound that always occurs but that I was just hearing because the window was open. That meant it was probably behind me coming through the open window. But how to convey that? I tried for a few minutes to think of how to describe the sound to Scotty. Finally I gave up and said "What is that sound?" Luckily (this is why he is my "hearing-ear person") he knew what I was asking right away and explained it was the sound of the lid of the truck box in the bed of the truck bouncing slightly as we drove.

It is only recently that I have learned, for example, to describe sounds like an air conditioner or a refrigerator as "humming." To me they do not sound like they are humming. Humming to me has a peculiar quality that almost feels ticklish, even when somebody else hums, which is absent from machines like air conditioners. I am listening to something or another "hum" right now and to me it sounds like a constant stream of sound but broken up sort of randomly. It's a sort of vibrating sound that seems a bit jumpy to me. I might even have said a few years ago that it was "beeping." I tend to describe a lot of sounds as "beeping" because it seems like sometimes I hear sounds sporadically even though most people would hear them completely fluid and connected.

Music is another one for me. I usually can't pick out individual instruments in a song except for the drums. Saxophones and pianos are the next easiest, but after that, it's all one fluid jumble to me. I remember watching a documentary on music on PBS a little while ago. To demonstrate the universal qualities behind music, they had people in a remote village somewhere listen to certain music (without words) and then identify the mood of the piece. I played along and got things terribly wrong. If it was supposed to be spooky I thought it was funny. If it was supposed to be somber I thought it was majestic. If it was supposed to be happy I thought it was depressing. Now that's just sad. If it weren't for singers and lyrics I'd be totally lost as to what most songs are about.

So much in life relies on sound and everyone takes it for granted. Even hard of hearing/deaf people can take the sounds they do hear for granted sometimes - I know I do. Even if it requires a little extra work, I am happy for the sounds I have in life, and the opportunity to keep learning how to describe them.


  1. I like your post Megan! It's great to have someone around that you can ask, What's That Sound? Some of my friends will go up to complete strangers and ask them - how about that for trying hard?! - Have to say, I haven't had the courage yet, to do that myself :)

  2. That's interesting. Sometimes, I'm not even sure how to describe a sound. It seems like sound descriptions are limited in general but I can't imagine how hard it'd be for you. Just curious, are the sounds slightly different than what hearing people hear?

    and ps: does your background have random splotches? I keep thinking somethings on my monitor but I can't seem to get at it & I'm not sure if that's how it's supposed to be or not. ha.

  3. Alicia, I'm not sure if what I hear is different than what hearing people hear. Most of the time when I try to describe a sound it just confuses other people but I think that's because I just can't describe them well.

    Also, yes, it has random black splotches. It actually looks different on every monitor I look at it on. This monitor makes it look like it's just dirty. Hmm.

  4. Okay, I switched out my background. I'll stick with a solid color for now. :)

  5. Interesting blog! you certainly made me think!


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