Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription with Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly-planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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