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Can sound be considered "blurry?"

I have heard of visual things being "blurry." Examples of this include blurry photographs or blurred vision.

Is the word "blurry" restricted only to vision? I have a friend who uses the word to refer to indistinct sound. For some reason, this annoys me at an instinctual level. It seems to me that the word to use in such cases would be "muffled."

Popular usage seems to restrict the usage of "blurry" to vision.

I have a bet riding on this.

Edit: Are there any literary or journalistic uses of this?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

In the future, you would do well to clarify the bet such that it can be objectively decided who wins. It may be a bit tricky with regards to something like "blurry sound" but here is a relevant NGram:

NGram for blurry sound,fuzzy sound

Blurry is used; fuzzy is used a lot more. For comparison, here is "muffled sound" vs "fuzzy sound":

NGram for muffled sound,fuzzy sound

The usage of blurry sound in published materials up to 2000 are ridiculously small compared to muffled sound. Post-2000 we can take a look at the straight up Google results which reveal around 9.8k results.

So people certainly use it. But the final blow comes from my local dictionary:

blur - a thing that cannot be seen or heard clearly

It explicitly mentions hearing and their example usage is "the words were a blur."

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Interestingly, the Doppler effect goes some way in aiding understanding of blurred sounds, particularly when waves are visualised. –  Grant Thomas May 5 '11 at 15:12
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To me, muffled sound would be analogous to dim in vision, while fuzzy sound would be analogous to blurry in vision. So my recommendation would be fuzzy sound. –  Peter Shor May 5 '11 at 17:40
    
@Peter: You get no disagreement from me; the point of me using muffled in the answer was to show how small the usages of fuzzy and blurry were. It is there as a baseline. –  MrHen May 5 '11 at 17:42

The physical phenomenon responsible for blurring of images is the so-called spacial low-pass filtering. When the same phenomenon is applied temporally to sound, sound loses its higher frequency content.

The only legitimate meaning of blurry sound I see then is when there is so much echo or physical obstacles for sound to go around that it loses clarity. Therefore, sound heard in a large echoic chamber (like a concert hall, hangar or cathedral) can be physically blurry, and sound that you hear from behind the wall when someone is speaking there can be blurry as well.

Sound contaminated by interference (like bad radio channel) would be considered noisy, not blurry.

Also, this type of sound would not be considered distorted. Distortion (I'm in danger of getting overly technical here), is a different phenomenon, characterized by non-linear effects, e.g. you speak too loudly into a microphone and it clips, or when you encode audio with very low quality, that's an example of distortion as well. Blurriness would be characterized by linear audio processing, like superposing many reflections (echoes) on top of each other.

I've been an audio processing engineer for some time now, and we rarely use this terminology, it's usually more technical, but I guess blurry would work, and most people in the field would understand it as the same exact phenomenon.

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+1 for mentioning the first thing I thought of, a low-pass filter. On a side note, synesthesia has given me oddly precise interpretations of weird cross-sensory language. –  Jon Purdy May 5 '11 at 14:56

The word blurry has already been extended beyond the visual domain. One can have a "blurry memory", for example. In this sense, the word blurry simply means "vague" or "indistinct".

If your friend then takes this sense of the word and applies it to a sound, it would mean an indistinct sound. There are probably stylistically better words to use in this situation, but I think you would be hard-pressed to argue that it is actually incorrect.


As a side note, we also have terms like "loud shirt" to refer to someone wearing excessively bright colors. So bringing the adjective for one perceptual medium into another perceptual medium is something we do from time to time.

Other examples: noise (in the field of electronics), sharp (referring to taste, sound or image, even though it is a tactile adjective), bright and dark sounds (in music), smooth jazz and hard rock, white noise.

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I think "muffled" and "blurry" imply different things: a "muffled" sound is one whose volume has been attenuated at certain frequencies, whereas a "blurry" sound to my mind implies one whose quality is indistinct because several sounds/types of sound have been blended together.

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I have never heard sound referred to as 'blurry' though I have heard people say 'fuzzy' in reference to sound quality. While 'fuzzy' feels onomatopoeically favourable, I would say that both words should only be used when describing picture quality, either in video or photo.

Your suggestion of 'muffled' would definitely be a better option. Another, less specific option would be 'distorted'; muffled would indicate that the sound is quietened and difficult to hear because of volume levels of the recording. Distorted allows for other quality issues, such as skipping, background noise and so on.

Hope this helps.

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As @Kosmonaut mentioned, yes 'blurry' is also used in other contexts such as when describing memories, but within the context of audio visual, I would maintain that 'blurry' should be restricted to visuals. –  Karl May 5 '11 at 14:23
    
Is there a reason it should be restricted? Is it just popular usage? –  Mario May 5 '11 at 14:28
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@Karl: It sounds like the need to restrict the usage of the word is just based on your opinion, no? –  Kosmonaut May 5 '11 at 14:32
    
It's based on what I would consider popular usage. Of course, you can feel free to do as you wish, but usually common usage dictates. Also, a look in the dictionary will support this answer. All references are to vision or seeing, none to sound or hearing. –  Karl May 5 '11 at 14:36
    
@Karl: The OED speaks of "an indistinct blurred appearance; indistinctness, confused dimness.". Although it does not mention sounds explicitely, I would say it could be applied to sounds, don't you? –  nico May 5 '11 at 14:44

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