What sounds you can feel but not hear?

I got a cool question from Veronica the other day: 

Which wavelength someone would use not to hear but feel it on the body as a vibration?

So this would depend on two things. The first is your hearing ability. If you’ve got no or limited hearing, most of your interaction with sound will be tactile. This is one of the reasons why many Deaf individuals enjoy going to concerts; if the sound is loud enough you’ll be able to feel it even if you can’t hear it. I’ve even heard stories about folks who will take balloons to concerts to feel the vibrations better. In this case, it doesn’t really depend on the pitch of the sound (how high or low it is), just the volume.

But let’s assume that you have typical hearing. In that case, the relationship between pitch, volume and whether you can hear or feel a sound is a little more complex. This is due to something called “frequency response”. Basically, the human ear is better tuned to hearing some pitches than others. We’re really sensitive to sounds in the upper ranges of human speech (roughly 2k to 4k Hz). (The lowest pitch in the vocal signal can actually be much lower [down to around 80 Hz for a really low male voice] but it’s less important to be able to hear it because that frequency is also reflected in harmonics up through the entire pitch range of the vocal signal. Most telephones only transmit signals between  300 Hz to 3400 Hz, for example, and it’s only really the cut-off at the upper end of the range that causes problems–like making it hard to tell the difference between “sh” and “s”.)

The takeaway from all this is that we’re not super good at hearing very low sounds. That means they can be very, very loud before we pick up on them. If the sound is low enough and loud enough, then the only way we’ll be able to sense it is by feeling it.

How low is low enough? Most people can’t really hear anything much below 20 Hz (like the lowest note on a really big organ). The older you are and the more you’ve been exposed to really loud noises in that range, like bass-heavy concerts or explosions, the less you’ll be able to pick up on those really low sounds.

What about volume? My guess for what would be “sufficiently loud”, in this case, is 120+ Db. 120 Db is as loud as a rock concert, and it’s possible, although difficult and expensive, to get out of a home speaker set-up. If you have a neighbor listening to really bass-y music or watching action movies with a lot of low, booming sound effects on really expensive speakers, it’s perfectly possible that you’d feel those vibrations rather than hearing them. Especially if there are walls between the speakers and you. While mid and high frequency sounds are pretty easy to muffle, low-frequency sounds are much more difficult to sound proof against.

Are there any health risks? The effects of exposure to these types of low-frequency noise is actually something of an active research question. (You may have heard about the “brown note“, for example.) You can find a review of some of that research here. One comforting note: if you are exposed to a very loud sound below the frequencies you can easily hear–even if it’s loud enough to cause permanent damage at much higher frequencies–it’s unlikely that you will suffer any permanent hearing loss. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask your neighbor to turn down the volume, though; for their ears if not for yours!

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