Menus Subscribe Search

Over the Speakers

loud-sounds

(Photo: Radoman Durkovic/Shutterstock)

Listen Up: It’s Time to Turn Down the Sound

• March 14, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Radoman Durkovic/Shutterstock)

Ambient noise machines meant to prolong uninterrupted sleep may be doing long-term damage to the ears of infants, kick-starting a cycle of hearing loss that’s almost impossible to break.

Most Americans seem blissfully unaware and unconcerned that our frequent and routine exposure to high-decibel noise, much of which we’re directly responsible for, will ultimately make it impossible for us to ever hear certain sounds again. Say goodbye to wind rustling through the trees, water lapping at the edge of a brook, and bees buzzing around a hive. Perhaps one day technology and medical science will restore these sounds to those who have lost them, but current hearing aids don’t have this capacity: They serve mostly to help us communicate with each other and do little to help us communicate with the natural world. Meanwhile, at all ages, we are taking active steps to impair our hearing.

Start with infants, those humans you might think are the least affected by loud sounds. Technology meant to positively alter their sonic universe in the short term may lead to negatively altering that universe permanently.

Earlier this month newspapers were filled with stories about a University of Toronto study. The first two sentences of the abstract say it all: “Infant ‘sleep machines’ (ISMs) produce ambient noise or noise to mask other sounds in an infant’s room with the goal of increasing uninterrupted sleep. We suggest that the consistent use of these devices raises concerns for increasing an infant’s risk of noise-induced hearing loss.” Parents trying to block out disturbing environmental noise may unwittingly be making their infants hard of hearing.

Hearing-damaged infants become hearing-damaged teenagers who listen to loud music that further damages their hearing, who then become hearing-damaged adults who go to events that further damage their hearing, who then have children whose hearing is damaged because their parents cannot hear.

This study fits a larger pattern: Hearing-damaged infants become hearing-damaged teenagers who listen to loud music that further damages their hearing, who then become hearing-damaged adults who go to events that further damage their hearing, who then have children whose hearing is damaged because their parents cannot hear.

Humans have known for millennia that loud sounds can induce hearing loss, but the past two centuries have ushered in new challenges to our ears. The Industrial Age has led to increased exposure to loud sounds in the workplace and the urban landscape. Add electricity to the mix and its ability to amplify sound, and today we live in a world where exposure to high-decibel noise is almost unavoidable.

But much of this exposure occurs by choice. Fewer and fewer Americans today experience loud sounds because their workplaces are inherently noisy; at the same time, more and more Americans experience loud sounds because their leisure activities are, literally, deafening.

The American Academy of Audiology circumspectly assesses exposure to loud music, saying that “any genre of music” can expose an individual to unsafe levels of sound. Certainly a climax in a Mahler symphony or a session of African drumming can be ear-splittingly loud. But I sense that, while these audiologists may not have wanted to get into the genre wars, they needn’t have worried. Studies have repeatedly shown that Americans’ listening habits have exposed us to hours of loud music daily often delivered through headphones and ear buds that, in turn, has led to hearing loss.

This is particularly acute in teenagers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that listening to a personal stereo system (such as an iPod with ear buds) at high volume can produce sounds around 105dB and recommend reducing exposure to no more than five minutes at a time. Yet another study shows that teenagers listen to over three hours of music per day. No wonder Apple encourages iPod owners to listen responsibly and limit the time one listens to music. “If you experience ringing in your ears or hear muffled speech, stop listening and have your hearing checked,” a page devoted to the subject on the company’s corporate website reads.

Self-inflicted hearing loss comes from sources other than headphones. Last year the Seattle Seahawks made news when they set a record for being the loudest outdoor football stadium in the nation. Fans were asked to ramp up the noise, at one point reaching 136.6dB. The Kansas City Chiefs responded, besting the Seahawks and registering 137.5dB. The twelfth man roared back in Seattle, squeaking past Kansas City by one-tenth of a point.

noise-chartA chart created by the American Academy of Audiology suggests most sporting events register around 110dB. That same chart notes that sounds over 120dB are dangerous if exposure lasts longer than 30 seconds; sounds over 130dB include jackhammers, ambulance sirens, and custom car stereos at full volume. So for football: If deafness is the end zone, stadiums are running up the score.

It’s not only sporting events and car stereos where loudness reigns. Consider how loud the average ovation has become at a student concert, wedding banquet, or going-away party. Polite applause and the occasional vocal approbation once sufficed. Now we compete with each other to see who can make the most noise in order to express appreciation. Quietly lurking behind these whistles and hoots—and given our current state, we may not have heard the thought—lies the possibility that ovations are louder today because we cannot hear ourselves.

We’re not just in jeopardy of losing sounds in nature. There are larger societal costs as well, as we run the risk of experiencing a twist on the old axiom: Out of hearing, out of mind. If we cannot hear the sounds that nature makes, we discount the importance of nature’s abilities to make those sounds. We can come to care less about the air and the water and the birds and the bees all because—to paraphrase and rearrange Shakespeare—we cannot hear the sounds of music as they creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night no longer become, for many, the touches of sweet harmony, potentially leading to discordant interactions with the world around us.

I recognize that, at some level, calling on us all to turn the sound down will fall on deaf ears. I trust nonetheless that I have reminded us why this is so.

Steve Swayne
Steve Swayne, a contributor to The OpEd Project, is the Jacob H. Strauss 1922 Professor of Music and the music department chair at Dartmouth College. He has received fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition to his work at Dartmouth, he has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at the University of California-Berkeley.

More From Steve Swayne

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


August 18 • 8:00 AM

What Americans Can Learn From a Vial of Tibetan Spit

Living high in the mountains for thousands of years, Tibetans have developed distinct biological traits that could benefit all of us, but translating medical science across cultures is always a tricky business.


August 18 • 6:00 AM

The Problems With William Deresiewicz’s New Manifesto

Excellent Sheep: a facile approach to an urgent critique.


August 18 • 4:00 AM

Ferguson Is a Serious Outlier

One black city council member is not nearly enough. In a study of city councils, only one place in America had a greater representational disparity than Ferguson, Missouri.


August 16 • 4:00 AM

Six Days in Ferguson: Voices From the Protests

A day-by-day chronology of what happened in Ferguson, drawn from the best reporting by journalists and witnesses on the ground.


August 15 • 4:00 PM

Skirting Ochobo: Big Business Finds a Way Around Local Customs

The “liberation wrapper,” which was designed to shield mouths from public view while eating, has helped a Japanese chain increase sales by over 200 percent.


August 15 • 2:00 PM

How Wall Street Tobacco Deals Left States With Billions in Toxic Debt

Politicians wanted upfront cash from a legal victory over Big Tobacco, and bankers happily obliged. The price? A handful of states promised to repay $64 billion on just $3 billion advanced.


August 15 • 12:00 PM

How the Sexes Evolved

The distinction between males and females is one of the oldest facts of biology—but how did it come to affect our social identity?



August 15 • 10:00 AM

Will Philadelphia Ever Be Home to a Middle Class?

Jake Blumgart has watched his friends decamp his adopted hometown for places with more opportunities and city services. Will anyone be left to build a better Philly?


August 15 • 8:32 AM

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent “feminization.”


Follow us


Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

Do Ticking Clocks Make Women More Anxious to Have Children?

Yes, but apparently only women who grew up poor.

Facebook App Shoppers Do What Their Friends Do

People on Facebook are more influenced by their immediate community than by popular opinion.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.