Origins of The Brown Note

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A mystery note that makes you poop your pants? A 100-foot Victorian loudspeaker that sent an entire crowd to the bathroom? What about an airplane so loud, it could make you throw up? The legend of The Brown Note. Today, on Signal Cannon.

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What if I told you there was a noise…so intense…that it could send you to the bathroom with basically instant diarrhea? I would say, don’t believe me. Because it doesn’t exist. And it’s not this sound either. That’s just sort of a representation of what it might sound like…something low and kinda disturbing.

I’m talking about a niche conspiracy theory about this hypothetical frequency that when played by an instrument or a weapon… makes you poop your pants. A note so low, it (according to legend) vibrates the inside of your body in such a way that it forces an urgent trip to the bathroom.

The Brown Note

It’s called, disgustingly, The Brown Note. And it isn’t real. But it shows in up in fiction every once in a while. Episodes of Archer, The League, Tim and Eric, and others, all feature some version of the unfortunate tone as plot devices. It’s a myth, borne from legend and hearsay, but a fun one, with a twinge of military history thrown in.

Sometimes it’s used as some kind of weapon. Sometimes it involves an instrument and an unsuspecting crowd.

You might remember this episode of South Park, where Cartman plays a flute and finds The Brown Noise, to comedic effect.

So where did this strange myth come from? Well, it’s not much of stretch to imagine sound as being potentially harmful. We know it is. The National Institute of Health warns that prolonged exposure to sounds over 120 decibels can result in permanent hearing loss. But airplanes taking off and loud rock concerts live at about that range.

The idea is that frequencies below that which humans can hear, frequencies lower than 20Hz, also known as “infrasound,” still affect the body. It’s why you can feel the bass of that loud concert in your chest. Sound is after all a physical thing: it’s a series of waves moving molecules in a medium. The air, the ground, the tissue in your body. So it’s hypothesized that a sound with enough power, at frequencies somewhere between 5Hz and 9Hz, so the theory goes, could produce the intestine-twisting sound.

You can imagine where the government angle might come in. A non-lethal weapon like this deployed on a battlefield would be highly advantageous. Point it in the direction of the enemy trenches and instantly you have a whole army of people too sick to fight.

The “Collosophone”

Supposedly, the first appearance of a noise that could make you lose bowel function came from a spoof article in the New Scientist from the 1970’s, concerning a fictional 110-foot wide speaker in Victorian England called the “Collosophone” which, during a recitation of the national anthem caused the entire audience to…well, you know.

“Step right up, step right up ladies and gentleman. Gather round. Come close. Come close. Gentelmane in the back, you’ll want to hear this! Hear the greatest achievement in sound. Over 100 feet tall! A whole orchestra in one horn!

Quote: “As soon as the first notes crashed out, the audience showed signs of discomfort, which gave rise to a panic before a verse of the Anthem was complete. Moreover, the evident mass psychological disturbance was accompanied by unpleasant physiological symptoms: pain, dieresis, and diarrhea.”

The Loudest Airplane Ever

Another popular origin involves an experimental military airplane from the 50’s called the Republic XF-84H, nicknamed “Thunderscreech” and “The Mighty Ear-Banger.” The loudest aircraft ever built, its propellers spun faster than the speed of sound even at idle. So it sustained a constant sonic boom on the ground which could reportedly be heard up to 25 miles away.

The incidents involved with this airplane are pretty wild, too. One crew member was violently knocked to the ground and another suffered a seizure as a result of the propeller’s shock wave. The aircraft was notorious (and this is the important part) for inducing severe nausea and headaches in the attending Edwards Air Force Base crew. Starting the plane threatened the control tower and its sensitive components so much due to the resulting vibrations that in order to take the plane out they had to tow some distance away before they could safely run up its engine. To on-one’s surprise, the program was cancelled a year later.

In 2006 there was a story involving musician Ben Folds playing the so-called Brown Note and throwing diapers and chocolate syrup into the audience as a gag. A Vice article referenced a 2015 story about a DJ in England whose set caused 500 people to spontaneously defecate. That second one wasn’t true. But the stories are out there and get around.

And, helpful as ever, the Mythbusters even took a stab at The Brown Note in 2005, surrounding Adam Savage with as many huge speakers as they could get their hands on and blasting a range of frequencies to help incite spontaneous diarrhea.

The results were…conclusive.

This episode of Signal Cannon is part of our ongoing series about the use of sound in weaponry and defense.

Last week we discussed a very recent instance in Cuba, in which US embassy officials working on the island nation reportedly lost their hearing and suffered other serious symptoms likely due to some kind of sonic attack. We also examined the LRAD, or Long Range Acoustic Device, a non-lethal crowd dispersal loudspeaker that’s been finding increasing use by police on American streets.

Listen to that episode and others right now at PressForSound.com

Signal Cannon is produced by me, Billy Donahoe. Our theme music was written and performed by Eric Donahoe. Show art by Julianne Waber and Sara Waber.

“God Save the Queen” was performed by the United States Navy Band and recorded in 2000.

You can follow the show on Twitter @PressForSounds, and connect with me there as well, @BillyDonahoe.

This is Signal Cannon.

 

Further Reading

“The Collophone Commemorated” by Irwin Friml from the December 1974 issue of New Scientist.

“I Went in Search of the Brown Note” Written by Jack Cummings for Vice in November 2016

“Protestors Panic Over ‘Crap Cannon’” Written by David Hambling, June 2008

“What is the LRAD Sound Cannon” Written by Roberto Baldwin for Gizmodo, August 2014

“The Future of Crowd Control” from the Economist printed in Technology Quarterly, Dec 2004

 

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