As a longtime musician raised by a father obsessed with the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Dion, I've always associated the experience of listening—carving out time to spend with a treasured album, letting myself get a little lost in it—with nostalgia, magic, and depth of feeling. Recently, however, I've uncovered another, more disturbing side of my relationship with sound.
The sounds of sickness actually make me angry. Awful, I know.
It's winter in New York City, which means everyone here is currently busy being clobbered by vicious strains of cold and flu. There's no shortage of the walking wounded, and most days are soundtracked by a chorus of sneezes and coughs. And while I tend to think of myself as a considerate person, I've found myself not just unable to feel sympathy—I have found the sounds of sickness actually make me angry.
Awful, I know. It's been hard for me to process, since I've long held that a capacity for empathy is perhaps the most important trait a person can possess. You need to feel bad for the unwell! But when my girlfriend got sick and I found myself irked even by the sound of her coughs, I knew I had a problem. I needed to get to the bottom of it.
No. 1: Why Is This Happening?
"Sound of coughing makes me angry" felt like a good Google search phrase to me, and I was right: it led me straight to a page where I could try my hand at a little internet self-diagnosis. (Always a bad idea, but I couldn't resist.)
"Do you have an intense emotional reaction to hearing someone eating with their mouth open, sneezing, coughing, sniffling, chewing gum or throat-clearing?" Funny you should ask. It would appear that I suffer from something called misophonia.
No. 2: Is There Such a Thing as "Hatred of Sound"?
Traced back to its Greek origins, misophonia translates to hatred ("miso") of sound ("phonia"). OK, now we're getting somewhere. But the Wikipedia page for misophonia goes to great lengths to tell me that "it is not classified as a hearing, neurological, or psychiatric disorder" (hint, hint: they kind of think it's made-up)... but I'm sold! It then goes on to say that misophonia "may be a form of sound–emotion synesthesia." And what is that?
No. 3: Can People Really Hear Colors?
Synesthesia is a condition which causes you to experience one sensation through multiple senses simultaneously. For example: people with music-related synesthesia describe the feeling of being able to "hear color," because they find that certain sounds trigger visions of certain colors. Seeing sound certainly seems like a lot more fun than, um, hating it. I'm a little jealous after reading this.
No. 4: In Search of Soothing Sounds
I decided it might be good to treat my ears to something sonically pleasing. I discovered a 2014 survey conducted by a snack company that discovered people find things like the sound of bacon sizzling, the pop of a champagne bottle, and the opening notes of a beloved TV show theme to be the most relaxing sounds on offer. These are all great, and soothing in their own right, but not the easiest things to summon on cue.
I cued up some of my favorite songs, but everything seemed to have a little too much going on. I tried a white noise machine and an app called White Noise filled with a whole range of tranquil, watery soundscapes like "Rain on Car Roof," "Rain Storm," "Light Rain Pouring," "Heavy Rain Pouring"—you get the idea. And yet, none of it seemed to take me exactly where I needed to go. It was time to bring out the big guns.
No. 5: The Most Relaxing Song Ever Recorded
In 2011, a British shower products company commissioned a study to find the most soothing tune ever recorded. The track "Weightless" by a trio called Marconi Union, hailing from Manchester, England, earned the distinction. (They even beat Enya and Mozart!) The 8-minute-plus ambient track weaves about, never repeating itself, leaving your brain with nothing to hook onto, thus rendering it free to drift into deep relaxation.
Here it is: the most relaxing song in the world. Yes, you're going to want to make sure you're sitting down for this one.
The moment I pressed play, my shoulders sank. My head began to tilt toward my left shoulder, and I felt my eyelids droop. As the music faded in, I could swear I felt my heart begin to pump more slowly.
No. 6: Am I Cured?
It's official: I can now just fire up some Marconi Union next time a coughing fit threatens to send me into a mini-bout of rage—but, as with all weapons this potent, "Weightless" is best saved for emergencies. For the average case of auditory annoyance, I think I'd be better off taking a deep breath, and digging into the ol' empathy reserve. If someone is sick, they deserve sympathy.
If that doesn't work… Marconi Union it is.