We here at the Prospect have been remiss in blogging the World Cup, which in case you weren't aware, is a soccer tournament going on in South Africa. It's kind of a big deal. But if you have tuned in, chances are you've been annoyed as hell at the sound of tens of thousands of vuvuzelas -- those infernal horns every fan in the stands seems to wield -- droning non-stop for 90 minutes. The effect is something like sticking your head inside a bee's nest, which severely compromises your enjoyment of The Beautiful Game. So why is it so irritating? The New Scientist offers an informative Q&A that explains things. An excerpt:
How do vuvuzelas make their sound?
The vuvuzela is like a straightened trumpet and is played by blowing a raspberry into the mouthpiece. The player's lips open and close about 235 times a second, sending puffs of air down the tube, which excite resonance of the air in the conical bore. A single vuvuzela played by a decent trumpeter is reminiscent of a hunting horn – but the sound is less pleasing when played by the average football fan, as the note is imperfect and fluctuates in frequency. It sounds more like an elephant trumpeting. This happens because the player does not keep the airflow and motion of the lips consistent.
But that din sounds nothing like a trumpet or an elephant.
When hundreds of the vuvuzelas are played together, you get the distinctive droning sound. People in the crowd are blowing the instrument at different times and with slightly varying frequencies. The sound waxes and wanes. The overall effect is rather like the sound of a swarm of insects.
Why are they so loud?
The loudness can be explained by the bore shape, which is roughly conical, and flares. As well as creating sound at a frequency of 235 hertz, the instrument generates harmonics – sound at multiples of the fundamental frequency. We have measured strong harmonics at 470, 700, 940, 1171, 1400 and 1630 hertz.
A flared instrument has louder higher-frequency harmonics than a cylindrical one. The flared instrument is perceived as louder because the higher harmonics are at frequencies where our hearing is most sensitive. This is partly why the conical saxophone sounds louder than the cylindrical clarinet.
If you're watching the games on your computer, you can download some software that will filter out the sound. Otherwise, you'll just have to suffer through it. Wikipedia tells us that the vuvuzela has been in use in South Africa only since the 1990s, which somewhat undercuts the claims I've seen made by some South Africans that it's an important part of their culture so the rest of us will have to just quit whining and plug our ears.
-- Paul Waldman