You’ve probably not spent much time thinking about who designed the different noises that alert you to trouble of one sort or another, but there are designers and engineers who spend their entire lives trying to find the alarm sweet spot: The point where the noise is annoying and persistent enough to get your attention, but not so horrible that it freezes you up or makes you switch it off before dealing with it.
One of these people is auditory alarm designer Carryl Baldwin. As a human factors psychologist, she works to ensure that sounds are appropriate for use in households, aviation, medical, and automotive settings, and that when implemented, they’re communicating their intended meaning (basically, is the alarm telling you that you’ve left your fridge open or screaming that your house is on fire).
The annoyance factor is high on their lists of things to check before rolling an alarm out the door. She explains:
We’ll construct sounds and we’ll look at all of the different acoustic parameters, so we might vary, for instance, intensity, frequency, the number of harmonics, how fast it ramps up and down, the temporal characteristics – like whether it’s going d-d-d-d-d-duh rapidly or duhhhhh-duhhhhh-duhhhhh.
They have found that the faster an alarm goes, the more urgent it tends to sound, and the same goes for higher pitches. Also, in order to get people to respond to an “urgent” alarm, it’s best to use two or more notes rather than a pure tone, which can sound “angelic and soothing.” A good example of this type of tone is the one the emergency alert system uses to get your attention on your television when they interrupt to convey a weather or amber alert.
To make matters more complicated, the tones need to match the urgency of the event, while also being distinct enough so that you immediately associate them with the problem at hand (a small chime if you’ve left your car lights on, a blaring siren if your house is on fire).
One area that’s currently under-investigated by alarm creators is how alarm noises mix and blend in scenarios where many alarms could be sounding at the same time – like in an emergency room or an airplane cockpit, for example. Luckily for all of us, there are people working on “alarm management” systems that look at the full line-up of possible alert sounds and how they combine, with the goal being to prioritize sounds so that the most important one earns the most attention at the crucial moment.
As you can see, there’s definitely a science to this whole alarm business, and it takes a lot of finesse and consideration to annoy you in just the right way so that you react appropriately. And even though it hurts to admit it, we should be thankful people are on the job.
h/t: Atlas Obscura
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