Archive for June 24th, 2010

The buzz on vuvuzelas

by Toby J Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Vuvuzelas. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, by the Dundas Football Club

The vuvuzela has an interesting history tied to the South African Shembe Church. Introduced by the prophet Isiah Shembe in 1910, the vuvuzela has been used in religious ceremonies for the past one hundred years. Similar to the kudu horn (made from the horn of a kudu antelope, of course) the vuvuzela was originally created from cane wood. When used properly, the horn is believed to produce miracles including the healing of the ill and injured.

One may ask, “If the vuvuzela can work wonders in the church, then why not on the football pitch?” Many members of the Shembe Church would carry their horns to the football matches that often followed their morning services. Some would compose songs for the vuvuzela to cheer on their favorite team. By the late 1980s, the elongated horns had become a regular sight at many matches throughout South Africa.

The ubiquitous plastic versions, frequently seen and constantly heard during World Cup matches, wouldn’t be introduced until the 90s when Neil van Schalkwyk began to manufacture the horns commercially.

The sound of the vuvuzela is produced by blowing a “raspberry” into the mouthpiece of the flared instrument. This causes the lips to open and close more than 200 times a second, setting up resonance within the horn. Producing sound at a frequency of roughly 235 hertz, the shape of the horn can set up harmonics ranging from 470 to 1630 hertz.

In the hands of a trained musician, the vuvuzela can produce pleasing tones much like a trumpet. Several thousand sports fans blowing into cheaply produced plastic versions of the horn can, on the other hand, sound like a swarm of slightly inebriated bees. This is where the problem lays.

Our hearing is a form of warning system that alerts us to potential danger. Constant sound may simply fall into the background as our brains process it as harmless white noise. Sudden changes in sound, however, may indicate danger and keep us more alert. The variations at which a large crowd of vuvuzela tooting football fans may be playing creates a constant shift in the sound, or droning, that makes us very aware of its presence. In the absence of any immediate danger, this sound becomes merely annoying.

Of course, the vuvuzela may present a danger itself. (No, I’m not talking about what you’d like to do to Mr. van Schalkwyk for introducing the instrument to the masses.) The danger comes in the sound levels produced by just one vuvuzela, let alone thousands playing in unison. Flared instruments, such as trumpets or saxophones, produce much louder notes than their straighter brethren the clarinet. The vuvuzela is capable of reaching 116 decibels at one meter, much louder than is recommended for extended exposure. Audience members tested directly after a match have shown signs of temporary hearing loss.

If you plan on attending a live match during World Cup, I recommend some form of hearing protection. If you’re trying to enjoy the match from home, there are a few measures you can take to increase your enjoyment and decrease your desire to stick your fingers in your ears and make “lalalala, I can’t hear you!” noises.

First, check your television to see if you can adjust the audio. Turning down the treble may work wonders in dampening a good portion of the drone. If you have a surround sound system, turning down the left and right speakers will eliminate most of the crowd noise while the game announcers will likely be directed through the center speaker. The internet is also offering a variety of solutions including MP3 files of white-noise designed to cancel out the vuvuzela , and programs intended to filter out the range in which the “buzzing” occurs. Be careful in what you try, as some of the internet remedies reportedly are more irritating than the situation they claim to fix.

World Cup is a fantastic event that allows people from around the planet to share not only in sport, but also history, culture, and science. Now, if we could just get a few other countries to participate in the World Series…

June 2010

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