Hogarth - The Enraged Musician

Do Certain Sounds Drive You Up a Wall? Welcome!

My name is Andrew Brandt and I am a Misophoniac.

There, I said it. Of course, a few days ago I had no idea it was a disease (actually a psychological disorder).

You might have it too. Do certain sounds annoy you? Think of chewing and slurping sounds, knuckle cracking, high heels clacking on a hard floor. Is there some sound people make that just annoys you? Makes you want to change seats in a theater or wish you could change flights on an airplane? Good. You have it, too. (We psychos love company.)

Misophonia was just named around 2002, so it’s new and stylish, too. I learned about it while reading the New York Times’s Please Stop Making That Noise, a Wellness article by Barron H. Lerner, M.D.

The reason I was reading it was because I was suffering with a cold-cough-bronchitis-winter-crud and I was having trouble concentrating on longer texts.

This is ME, I sniffed.

In fact sniffling is one of those sounds that set off Misophonists. I completely identify with those audially suffering people who just want to turn around in the movie house and scream, “Don’t you know how to use a handkerchief?”

Of course, the article immediately raised questions. First, “What noises really set me off?” followed by, “What noises do I make that set off others?” I immediately started reminiscing about my favorite, most annoying sounds.

Ah, yes, pen clicking. I’ve been at both sides of this annoyance, something I apparently share with the article’s author. Apparently another Misophonist, long ago, made an impression on me and I consciously avoid doing it now. Most of the time.

Jingling keys or coins, especially as a nervous twitch during concerts or lectures really set me off, too.

A barking dog at night? Especially in summer when the windows are open? But is this Misophony, or just something that annoys everybody?

Any kind of electro-sonic speaker feedback puts me on edge. But this may be learned conditioning from my career as a bassoonist, not necessarily a medical condition.

An electric alarm clock beeping with nobody shutting it off! I once lived in an apartment complex, where the guy who’s bedroom was just one wall away from mine would leave town for days, forgetting to turn off his alarm clock which would beep for a full hour before turning off. (Haven’t alarm clock manufacturers figured out that if the first five minutes of beeping didn’t wake up their owners, the following 55 probably wouldn’t either?) But if it annoys everybody, can it be a real phobia?

Are there general dislikes shared by all humans that do not then apply to Misophonia?

In our area of New Jersey, our townships suffer from having volunteer firemen and emergency people who cannot be summoned day or night without some dispatcher (either in town or, for all I know, in Mumbai) setting off the local fire sirens. Apparently the local volunteers cannot depend on such dubious technology as cell phones or pagers for their emergencies. No, they have to wake the entire town, like a town crier but louder.

This is particularly annoying to me after living in The Deep South where the same sirens are set off for only one thing: tornados. Apparently Southern emergency providers are more up to date with communication technology than New Jerseyans and still manage to get to their emergencies on time without resorting to World War II vintage air raid sirens.

I’m not sure if this qualifies, but while attending grad school at Indiana University, I shared a couple of classes with a fellow music major, who happened to be Jewish and had a bad sinus condition. His solution was to unexpectedly and loudly engage in a unique sneeze-yell of “ZOY!”

These repeated ZOYs became a running joke in the music school. One of my professors, Walter Kaufmann, had the last word during a History of Musical Instruments class when he asked some question of the class, probably as to the name of some peculiar woodwind instrument, when he was interrupted by a sudden ZOY. He immediately yelled back, “NO, it is NOT a Zoy!” The class, of course, broke out into raucous laughter.

Prof. Kaufmann had already gone up in my estimation by being, hands down, the most creative curser of any of my collegiate instructors. I still think of him fondly when I’m in a situation which almost demands his heavily accented, “Zat’s AbsoGoddamBloodylutely Nonsence!”

But I do remember a definite case of Misophony from my school days, which could have had disastrous consequences.

When attending a Cleveland Orchestra concert, I became suddenly aware of the loud ticking of the watch of the lady sitting next to me.

(To explain to the younger reader, there was a time, ancient history in tech terms, when you had to wind up watches and they actually ticked when telling time. Not like huge grandfather clocks (whose sound do NOT annoy me), but similar to those sounds at the beginning and end of Sixty Minutes news show, if you young people ever watch the news any more.)

Between pieces – it might have been during intermission – I began a polite conversation with the lady, who was attractive as I remember, and said something along the lines of, “I don’t wish to seem picayune,” a verbal affectation prone to undergraduates in those days, “but I noticed that your watch ticks really loudly.”

She, very politely agreed, saying that she had been told that by others and voluntarily took off the watch and put it in her purse.

I barely heard the watch during the rest of the concert, thus avoiding a Tell-Tale Heart moment forcing me to slash open her purse and kill her to stop that incessant ticking sound during the second half of an orchestra concert. Also, fortunately, I had left my reed-making knives at home.

Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart might be the nineteenth century pre-Freudian reference for the ultimate Misophonist.

Future concert goers should remember this cautionary, Poe-like story if they should happen to sit behind me during a concert without turning off their cellphone.

And to any of my Misophoniac, old classmates who I annoyed during my early pen-clicking days, I offer that those days are long gone and it’s safe to come back and talk to me now. As soon as I get rid of these sniffles.


Title image: “The Enraged Musician” By William Hogarth, based on an illustration in: The Original Works of William Hogarth (London: J. and J. Boydell, 1790). (Optimized by the author for web display.) Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

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