In the 1984 film “This Is Spinal Tap”, Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest) famously turns him amplifiers all the way up to eleven. His attitude to music is that the volume is a big part of the sound, and louder is better.
Unfortunately for Nigel, listening to loud music for a long time can cause irreparable hearing loss. The solution seems simple: Just turn the volume down a bit. In reality, it’s not so straightforward. Two recent studies show how different cultural and technical practices indirectly affect how loud the music is that we’re listening to.
First, music itself has been gradually getting louder. Researchers in Canada studied a large collection of songs from the past nine decades to see how much the sound intensity of the music itself has changed per decade. They found that a track by one of today’s artists is intrinsically louder than eighties hits, regardless of whether you’ve turned up the volume to eleven.
This increase doesn’t have anything to do with a change in music style over the years, but with the way that the tracks are recorded and edited. According to the study, audio engineering has changed over time, and as a result there are now fewer “quiet spots” within tracks. That means that the overall sound intensity of current music is a bit higher than that of older music. So yes, music has gotten louder over the years.
But this alone does not mean that these tracks are more likely to cause hearing damage. That also depends on how the listener controls the volume on their end. Ideally, you should probably turn the sound down just a bit when you’re listening to a louder song. Whether you do that, though, again depends on a lot of factors, as another recent study showed.
An international group of researchers wondered how young adults from different countries thought about loud music. They surveyed people between the ages of 18 and 25 in cities in the USA, UK, Portugal, India and Iran and asked them what came to mind when they thought about the concepts of “music” or “loud music”.
There found a lot of similarities between the different countries. Most people had generally positive associations with music, and associated it with memories, friends or aspects of a good quality of life. But when it came to “loud music”, negative associations started to take over. Hearing problems was one of these negative connotations that people associated with loud music, but it came up more often in conversations with people from the UK, USA and Portugal than with the study participants in India or Iran. That doesn’t mean that people in those last two countries don’t know that loud music causes hearing loss – it just showed that it wasn’t the first thing on their mind when they thought about loud music.
Being aware of the link between loud music and hearing loss is in itself not enough to make the decision to protect your ears, but it’s a good start. An earlier study from researchers in Sweden and the USA found that young adults in Sweden were more likely to use ear plugs at a concert than Americans, even though both groups were aware of the dangers. They thought that in that case, the difference was that ear plugs had become more socially accepted in Sweden, thanks to a series of awareness campaigns. If everyone uses ear plugs, it’s less embarrassing to be wearing them.
So even if you already knew about the dangers of loud music, it’s worth repeating the message. And now that you also know that music is gradually getting inherently louder, maybe it’s time to turn the dial back down from eleven.