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Too loud, man! Losing oneself in a wave of sound: is it damaging our hearing?

Read more Last updated: 2018-01-03
In collection Music
Reading duration: 4 minutes

The 1984 film satirising hard rock music, 'This is Spinal Tap', contains a joke about the titular band creating a top-volume setting on their amplifiers of 11, rather than the standard 10 – so that they can go ‘one louder’.

It is a reference to the music scene of the 1960s and 1970s, when playing very noisily became synonymous with rebellion. British rock band Deep Purple bumped up the volume to 117 decibels (dB) – the level of a sandblaster – for a 1972 show at London’s Rainbow Theatre, and made the Guinness Book of Records.

Is it only coincidence that The Who’s guitarist Pete Townsend is ‘almost stone deaf’, according to the band’s singer Roger Daltrey, while Phil Collins, will.i.am, and Ozzy Osbourne all have hearing problems?

Professor Chris Plack, an audiology expert at the University of Manchester, is convinced that auditory nerves can be damaged by long-term music listening, because of similar results on mice in a Harvard University study. He is part of a research team that will analyse the long-term impact of recreational music listening on humans – at clubs and gigs, and through MP3 players.

Part of the appeal of loud music, is that it can actually feel enjoyable. Plack says: “There can be an enormous stress response in the body and the result can be a visceral, pleasurable experience.”

His team – funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) – will study 180 people aged 18-30, with and without a history of noise exposure, to see their how their brains and auditory systems respond to a series of tests. Sophisticated imaging techniques will be used to try to detect deafness before it shows up on a conventional audiogram, and reduced neural response caused by damage to auditory nerve fibres.

The researchers hope to prove that a history of recreational noise exposure reduces the ability both to hear speech in noisy environments and to perceive musical pitch. This will put pressure on companies and venues to control noise levels.

Hurricane
UPWARDS: If sound levels get too loud, a person's hearing threshold can be shifted up by as many as 40 dB, experienced as temporary deafness.
© Getty Images

Hidden deafness

Another ongoing MRC-funded study involves the first ‘mass participation’ investigation into the effects of music listening. It features an online survey asking how often participants have been to gigs since their teens, and a test of number recognition above noise.

The MRC wants to investigate whether amplified music causes hearing problems, or whether hearing loss is just an unavoidable part of growing old. Its lead researcher, Dr Michael Akeroyd, from the MRC Institute of Hearing Research in Glasgow, said: “In the early twentieth century we listened to music on horn gramophones, but we can now play music for hours at levels which are potentially damaging.” The Health and Safety Executive, in partnership with representatives from the music industry in the UK, provides guidance on noise levels, via the Sound Advice website. It urges concerts halls, pubs and clubs to have screens, drapes and floor coverings to keep down noise levels.

European Union legislation on noise reduction is contained the General Applications Regulations of 2007, focusing on employers’ obligations to protect workers. For sound at 80 dB – above which it is difficult to hear normal speech at two metres – employers have to provide workers with ear protection. These rules do not apply to audience members. In February 2013, the European Union brought in a default sound limit of 85 dB on all personal music players sold in member states, although users can override it to 100. The UK-based charity, Action On Hearing Loss – which supports people with hearing problems – is concerned that listeners are unaware of the dangers of overriding the default.

The Audiogram

The audiogram provides a picture of how well a person hears. The volume of sound is measured in units called decibels (dB).

Zero decibels is a very low-level sound. Normal conversation has a volume of around 70dB. A person with normal hearing can perceive birdsong (10–20dB). Severe hearing loss has occurred, when a person can no longer hear the ringing of the telephone (90 dB).

Chill out area

The charity’s audiology specialist Gemma Twitchen urges music lovers to wear earplugs at loud events. She says: “You can avoid standing near the speakers, go to a chill out area now and again to escape the noise, or wear ear plugs. There’s a misconception that ear plugs block out sound and stop you from enjoying it.”

Plenty of pop stars have supported Action On Hearing Loss’s stance. Coldplay singer Chris Martin is one. He says: “I’ve had tinnitus for about 10 years, and since I started protecting my ears it hasn’t got any worse. But I wish I’d thought about it earlier. Now we always used moulded filter plugs or in-ear monitors.”

Twitchen argues that a culture change towards hearing protection is possible, as has happened with sun protective cream. She says: “Our difficulty is that, although we suspect there’s a problem with music from MP3s, festivals, and clubs, we don’t have the hard evidence.”

Ear protection is not the preserve of rock and roll. Sydney Opera House, Australia is one of several international orchestra to provide acrylic glass shields between musicians, particularly between the woodwind and brass sections.

A Sydney Symphony Orchestra spokesperson called this a necessary evil, adding: “It’s a thrilling experience to be sitting in front of a brass section in full flight, but it can be very damaging, because sound levels can rise above 110 dB. It’s a profound irony that musicians’ hearing, which is integral to the job, can be damaged by the very thing they love to do.”

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