Quick, What Pitch is the Smoke Alarm?

11464274 - fire alarmMy dryer buzzes a Bb. My oven timer sings out a high D and the microwave offers a B above middle C. The doorbell ding-dongs a pleasant F down to D, but the tea kettle, old and weary, starts at F# and tends to go flat. My house is very musical. I’ll bet yours is, too.

I’m a little nuts, but as a musician, I can’t help checking out the pitch of things I hear. I ping the crystal glass with my fingernail and find myself humming and running to the piano. What is it?!! I have pretty good relative pitch, so I am usually close, but I’m not sure until I check. It’s the D next to middle C, very pleasant. I try my ordinary water glass: A, not bad. I check the seat belt warning beeper in my car: C above middle C, very annoying. The Honda horn: a blatty G#.

I’m on a roll. Why write when you can Google stuff? It turns out there’s a science behind the sounds our possessions make. Sound engineers actually work hard to find the right sounds for the right purpose. Higher pitched sounds are more unpleasant and therefore get our attention. They’re used for alerts and alarms. A low-pitched siren would not have the same effect and might not cut through the other noises in our lives. Lower-pitched sounds are more pleasant and are used for notifications, things we want to know, but it’s not a matter of life or death.

Sound designers look for sounds that will get our attention as needed. If the house is on fire, you don’t want a low A hum. You want a shrieking high G# that will wake you up. The typical bing-bong doorbell is a pleasant interruption. But think if the notes were changed to something minor or clashing.

I have noticed that, with the exception of my tea kettle, everything is right on pitch. This is quite amazing.  picture some poor guy trying to tune an over or a dryer. No, that’s not it. Beep. Not quite. Beep. Almost. Beep! Damn, now it’s sharp.

Maybe you’re not a musician. Maybe you’re not obsessed with determining the pitch of everything you hear. Maybe you agree with the yoga sound healers online who say that if you have to know what pitch the sounds are, you’re not going with the flow. They’re probably right. I can see me jumping out of my full lotus in the middle of a session to look for a musical instrument or use the pitch pipe on my phone. It’s a Bb! Okay, we can continue.

Sound healing is a real thing. You can buy bowls, bells, and gongs that are said to affect the different chakras—energy centers along your spine. Just close your eyes and feel the vibrations. Don’t ask what note it is. It’s actually very pleasant. You can read up on sound healing at http://www.dreamweaving.com/dwalsg.htm or https://www.devpreetkaur.com/sound-healing-instruments.

But back to the sounds in our houses. Pitches are sound-wave frequencies, measured in Hertz (Hz) and Kilohertz (kHz). The human ear with normal hearing is capable of detecting sound waves from approximately 20Hz to 20,000 Hz (20 kHz). One to three kHz is said to be the sweet spot where human hearing is most sensitive.

Up until the 1950s, manufacturers didn’t have the same options for sounds that we have in our computer-operated world. Think tiny hammers hitting tiny bells in a telephone. Today’s computer-powered cell phone ring tones can be virtually anything from an old-time bell to your favorite song.

Did you know you can listen to common sounds online and even download them to use on your website, movie, or recording? You can get buzzers and beeps, a duck quacking, a dog lapping water, or the noise of a busy restaurant. Visit www.freesoundeffects.com or https://www.soundsnap.com. You can buy sounds at 123rf, the same site where I often download pictures for this blog. At YouTube, search for “common sounds” and go crazy. You might want to wear ear buds or headphones for these; they’re not very loud.

I tried to figure out what pitch Annie speaks in. We had a long song session. She was trying to tell me to leave the computer alone and take her for a walk. She started with very low sounds, but as I tried to match her tones, soon we were all over the sound spectrum. That dog has a huge range compared to my tiny human one. Having won the sing-off, she dragged me down the street for a while, where we enjoyed the whoosh of the wind, the chirp of the birds, and the bark of the neighbors’ dogs.

You might wonder if I have more important things to do. Nope. I do the research so you don’t have to. What are you hearing at your house?

***********

Text copyright 2017 Sue Fagalde Lick, photo copyright: jerryb7 / 123RF Stock Photo

 

Advertisements

Can you find one square inch of quiet?

I’m spoiled. The place where I live is quiet. Sitting in my back yard, I hear mostly birds and the wind. Occasionally a plane or helicopter flies over from the small airport a half mile south, and sometimes I hear a truck gearing up on Highway 101. Sometimes the ocean whispers and sometimes it roars, but overall it feels quiet. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t hear as well as I used to. As noted in earlier posts, I have a measurable hearing loss typical of people my age. But in my yard, I can almost hear the quiet.

Gordon Hempton, author of a wonderful book called One Square Inch of Silence, would disagree. He would say it’s pretty good, but it’s not truly quiet here in South Beach. If he measured the sound levels here, he’d probably come up with about 35 decibels coming from cars, waves, and miscellaneous mechanical sounds that I don’t notice. When a helicopter passes over, it would go up to about 90. Wherever we live, we become accustomed to a certain level of noise: cars, lawnmowers, TVs, appliances, dogs barking, people talking, and so much more. Some of us even become uncomfortable if it’s too quiet. We reach for our iPods or turn on the TV. I confess that sometimes I sleep with the radio on.

Gordon Hempton specializes in sounds. He makes his living mostly from making and selling recordings of birds, beaches, and train whistles. But his favorite sound is no sound at all. He prefers quiet, quiet enough to hear your own footsteps or the chorus of birds that greets the new day. But quiet is hard to find. Even places billed as quiet are filled with the noise of cars, planes, trains, and people. He’s on a mission to set aside one square inch of silence in Washington’s Olympic National Park, making it a place where people don’t speak and planes don’t fly over. As part of that mission, he drove across the country to Washington, D.C. in a VW bus, measuring sounds in cities, parks and wilderness areas. His book is the story of that journey. I found the book fascinating and enjoyed the way the science is folded into an engaging story. I also learned a great deal about sound.

Did you ever think about the fact that our hearing is designed to keep us safe, that most animals depend on their ability to hear predators coming so they can react to protect themselves. Animals won’t nest where it’s too noisy because they can’t hear, Hempton says. For us people, that might mean hearing a car coming so we don’t get run over, hearing a rattlesnake before we step on it, or hearing someone knocking on the door. We need to be able to hear a baby cry or a loved one shout for help. We need to hear each other in order to communicate. Hempton says we don’t have “ear lids” because we need to be able to hear all the time.

But it’s getting to be so noisy we can’t be sure we’ll hear anything. On his travels, Hempton visited a symphony hall, the Indianapolis speedway, and a basketball game. All were so loud it was nearly impossible to converse and the sound levels were high enough to cause damage to people’s hearing. Even in many of the restaurants he visited, it was too loud to talk. The roar of conversation, kitchen noises and Muzak added up to an audio attack. Even in places where people assured him it would be quiet, places like national parks and areas deep in the wilderness, Hempton found planes flying overhead every few minutes and power plants roaring 24/7.

All of this makes me glad to live where it is relatively quiet. Of course, there’s a price to pay. Mid-morning on my street, I’m the only human around. It gets lonely. At my desk, I hear a hum from the refrigerator, I hear my computer keys clacking, I just heard a fly bounce off the window. If I pay attention, I can hear myself breathing. But as soon as I get in my car, I turn on the radio as I ease into a world of noise, a world where quiet is becoming harder every day to find.

Find out more about Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence campaign and watch a video at his website, onesquareinch.org.

I found a free app for my phone that measures sound. It rates the sound here in my office right now as a whisper. Is it quiet where you are? What kind of noises surround you? Do you notice them most of the time? Let’s talk about it in the comments. Quietly.