The human ear is one of the body’s most extraordinary organs. Not only does it translate sound waves into nerve impulses for our brains to interpret, but it does so through the cooperative efforts of many different parts.
For all its resilience, the human ear faces many threats in our modern world. The baseline level of noise has increased dramatically. We ride on trains and noisy roadways, we mingle in crowded places, and we unwind at concerts, parties, and bars where we must shout to be heard. Many of us work around machinery that clanks and whines without pause. And to make it even more difficult on our ears, our “quiet time” often consists of retreating into our own worlds by listening to great music.
There are plenty of concerns people have when it comes to the music they listen to:
- Can loud music damage hearing?
- Is my child’s music too loud?
- How loud should my music be?
Music is a vital part of life for most of us. Understanding how hearing damage occurs, as well as learning how to prevent it, are the best ways to ensure that you will continue to enjoy music for the rest of your life.
The Human Ear — How Fragile Is It, Really?
To better understand the dangers of loud noise, it helps to have a cursory knowledge of how the ear functions. We’ll summarize by covering the three parts of the ear: the outer, middle, and inner ear.
As you might have guessed, the outer ear is that recognizable outcropping of cartilage and skin that sticks out from each side of our head, as well as the ear canal disappearing into our skull. Its purpose is to catch sound waves, which arrive from all kinds of different angles in our natural environment, and direct them into the ear canal toward the eardrum.
This is where the middle ear begins. Think of the eardrum as a speaker cone — but one that works in reverse. Instead of producing sound waves, the eardrum catches them and vibrates sympathetically. On the other side of it is a series of tiny bones that move along with it, including the smallest bone in the human body: the stapes. Like a knocker on a door, this tiny bone taps against the hard wall of the inner ear.
Finally, the inner ear is a complex world of fragile, snail-like bones, moving fluids, tiny hair cells that capture sounds, auditory nerves, and even part of the brain. It takes the vibrations transmitted by the stapes and morphs them into the metaphysical “sound” that we perceive in our minds.
What is the point of learning this? Largely, to demonstrate that the ear is a multi-faceted, complicated and fragile structure that relies on a lot of moving parts operating in concert to function properly. It is easy to imagine the damage that high decibel levels can cause to such a delicate system.
How Do We Measure Sound?
Sound is measured in decibels. Decibels represent larger changes than everyday numbers, however — instead of going up linearly, as normal measurements do, they increase logarithmically. That means that an increase from 80 to just 90 decibels means the sound has actually grown twice as loud.
The result is that any changes in this scale can actually be quite significant. When we discuss decibel levels, keep in mind that moderate numerical increases can often represent huge changes in volume.
Can Loud Music Damage Hearing?
Now that you’re armed with some science, let’s look at the effects of loud music on the ears.
Just as our bodies tire out from repetitive motion, our ears can only handle so much before they begin showing signs of strain. Listening to music is good for the body, mind, and soul. But when you listen for too long, particularly at higher volume levels, you are likely doing long-term damage to your ears.
Many of us have had the experience of going to a loud concert or party without hearing protection. The sounds coming from loudspeakers at a rock concert can reach 120 decibels — in case you’re wondering, that’s a dangerously high sound level for our ears to handle. The experience is often followed by a sensation of muffled hearing, as if the sound is reaching your ears through a pillow. This may be accompanied by a high-pitched squealing. But after a few days, the symptoms pass. No problem then, right?
Unfortunately, scientists are discovering that such events actually cause irreversible damage to our ears. Even though our ears seem to recover from these episodes, studies reveal that the effects are cumulative. This means that hearing damage accumulates and comes back to haunt us later in life — and the more damage we’ve had, the earlier that haunting occurs.
The louder a sound is, the less time our ears can safely handle it. A clap of thunder is also around 120 decibels, but the reason thunderstorms don’t turn us deaf while concerts do is that a concert produces noise continuously. Just as we can’t lift large weights for very long without hurting ourselves, we can’t handle 120 decibels for very long either.
What Decibel Levels Can We Tolerate?
To get some idea of what volumes are safe and how long they remain so, let’s take a look at the decibel levels of some everyday sounds.
The sound of breathing comes in at around 10 decibels. This is barely audible and is close to the lower limit of our hearing. A normal conversation might register around 50 decibels, whereas running a vacuum cleaner typically hovers around 70 decibels. A vacuum cleaner is unlikely to damage your hearing, but sound levels higher than this can start to become irritating.
80 decibels is where problems begin to occur. This is the level of a normal working factory, or of a garbage disposal — it is twice as loud as a sound at 70 decibels. Experts suggest that eight hours is the maximum amount of time we can be exposed to this sound level without damaging our ears.
Headphones and earbuds can emit sounds up to 110 decibels. This is the equivalent of having a car horn blaring into each of your ears. Even though we may listen at just 85 to 90 decibels, our ears can be damaged by this if we listen for too long.
To make matters more complicated, it is not always clear when our ears need a rest. A very common cause of hearing damage is allowing our ears to grow tired, then turning up the music to make up for the perceived drop in volume.
Different Types of Music Can Affect Hearing Damage
It’s no secret that death metal will make you go deaf faster than a singer-songwriter on an acoustic guitar. The truth of the matter is that young people are going deaf faster than previous generations, and this likely has to do with both the devices they use to listen to music and with the type of music itself.
The reason rock music expedites hearing loss is partly due to the wide range of frequencies present within it. Rock music fills many different parts of the sound spectrum. That means that many different pitches, from the lowest notes to the highest squeals, are often present at the same time in a rock song. The kick drum and bass create a low rumble, while the cymbals and harmonics of the guitars create a lot of high-end — and it’s these high frequencies that contribute strongly to hearing loss.
Furthermore, volume is a big part of rock music and the culture associated with it. This is understandable, as it may seem that a rock song is lacking something at low volumes. The intensity of its emotion doesn’t really impact you, and you can’t feel the raw power of the bass. But listening to the music at higher volumes leads to ear fatigue, which can kill your hearing quickly.
Plus, there are ways to get around needing higher volumes to “feel” the music. We’ll cover that when we talk about isolating earbuds.
Hearing Loss Affects High Frequencies
We’ve said that rock music damages hearing partly because it contains so many high frequencies. As it turns out, high frequencies are also the first ones to go from our hearing as we age.
This largely involves frequencies between 2,000 and 8,000 Hertz, which account for sounds like the letter “s” and the “sh” and “ch” sounds. Without high frequencies, speech and sound seem dull — recall our discussion of the muffled sound after a loud rock concert.
This type of hearing loss is caused when we damaged the sensitive nerve cells in our inner ear. These tiny hairs are what transform sound waves into the electrical signals sent to our brain. When they’re damaged, high frequencies no longer make it past the inner ear and are lost in translation.
How Risk Changes With Different Forms of Listening
The type of listening platform you choose will inevitably affect how much hearing damage you are subjected to. Several causes contribute to this. Not only do speakers transmit frequencies differently, but there are also factors like isolation and the surrounding environment that affect potential damage.
Before we begin, though, remember that it’s not always the volume that causes damage: it’s how long we listen at that volume. If you want to pump up your favorite song a bit, that’s usually fine. Just don’t keep it at a high level for very long.
The most common suspect for hearing damage these days is the earbud. These small, portable in-ear speakers are a convenient and easily portable way to consume our music. Unfortunately, they also can lead to hearing damage when used incorrectly. This is not to say that they are inherently bad, however. To illustrate this point, pay attention at the next large-scale concert you attend. Do the musicians on stage use large monitor wedges on stage to hear themselves? Most likely not. Instead, many musicians use custom-fitted “in-ear monitors” that transmit the mix directly into their ear canals.
If earbuds can do great harm to our ears, why do many musicians choose in-ear monitoring over traditional speakers? The answer is isolation — that is, the blocking out of external sounds so that music can be listened to at safer volumes. There are many earbuds on the market whose speakers come shrouded in rubber earpieces, providing a good deal of isolation and allowing listeners to safely hear both a balanced mix and minute details.
We’ve all passed by someone wearing plastic earbuds whose music we could hear over the ambient noise outside. Listeners often overcompensate with volume because plastic earbuds allow in a great deal of external sound, which naturally prompts them to turn the volume to better hear the music. If you do choose to use them, be aware of this tendency — but try finding an earbud that fits your ear and isolates the music, and see if the difference in sound quality alone doesn’t convince you.
Listening Habits to Adopt to Protect Hearing
We’ve covered some science and lined up some culprits — but let’s wrap up by looking at some practical ways to extend the life and health of your ears. If you can adopt these habits now, you will be rewarded in decades to come by crisp hearing and continued enjoyment of sound.
Bring a Nice Set of Earplugs With You Everywhere You Go
They take up so little space, and they’re more versatile than you might think. Buying a set of dedicated earplugs doesn’t have to be expensive, either. A good set of isolating earplugs, even ones that are custom-molded to your ears, can cost under $30 and are good for many years.
Whereas foam earplugs can make everything sound muffled due to their disproportionate lowering of high frequencies, a higher-end set has a “flat” response — that is, it can lower the volume of all frequencies equally. This way, users can hear the music as it naturally sounds, except 20 to 30 decibels lower.
Having earplugs at hand makes many activities more pleasant. Wearing them at loud concerts and dance parties allows you to feel the music without damaging your hearing. Try putting them in on long car rides to lower road noise, or using them on airplanes to quiet the dull roar of the engines. Use them in coffee shops and busy stations.
Limit Your Listening Time in One Sitting
When you listen to music for any length of time, keep this general rule in mind: the louder it is, the shorter you should listen to it. While soft music may be fine to play all day, anything more intense should be listened to in moderation.
Try this exercise: turn your music down to a level you consider to be too low. Listen for a while at this level and notice how your ears attune themselves to detail. This demonstrates how we don’t really need music to be loud to enjoy it.
Implement periods of silence into your listening routine. These “ear breaks” give your ears several minutes of silence to rest, allowing those tiny hair cells in the inner ear to recharge and recover. This results in less chance of damage.
Invest in a Set of Isolating Headphones or Earbuds
The difference between earbuds and headphones comes down to quality and preference. A nice set of either can offer incredible sound, and it all depends on whether you find large headphones or small earbuds more comfortable and convenient.
The piece of the puzzle that truly matters is isolation. You don’t always want total isolation — you may use your earbuds or headphones in situations when you need some awareness of the outside world — but you need a baseline amount of isolation to improve your listening experience and save your hearing.
Isolating earbuds may have custom-molded earpieces, or they may offer less robust earpieces made of thin of rubber. Either can be fine, depending on your needs.
However you choose to listen to music, remember that your ears are performing an incredible task in translating those pressure waves into sound. Be aware of their limitations and try to practice safe listening habits. In doing so, you are giving your future self the gift of music and clear sound. To protect your ears and ensure your hearing capabilities for years to come, consider investing in a pair of high-quality custom molded earplugs.