Believe it or not, the FCC sets volume controls on television and radio broadcasts. The loudest moment in the program determines the level at which the entire program is presented, and no single sound is allowed to exceed this highest level. For decades, advertisers have created the sensation of increased volume during their spots through compressing the decibel range of their commercials so that this loud volume level is maintained throughout. This is why we perceive the advertisements to be louder than the program as a whole—the commercial’s talking voices resonate at a nearly equal level to the explosions in the program itself.
Many music producers have seized on this phenomenon and have tried to keep their artists’ songs at this high volume level. By pushing their volume meters constantly into the yellow, they hope to make their tracks pop out of the radio grind. As more and more producers have caught onto this trick, they have ended up battling over every last decibel in the loudness war. Of course, when all music is equally loud, listeners simply adjust the volume to make everything equally quiet (or loud, depending on their tastes). Thus, it would appear that the best way to stand out on radio today might be to start a track very softly.
But here I’d like to move the discussion towards another type of loudness war. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, accounts of orchestra concerts would often discuss the moving power of the ensemble. People of those eras had never heard any musical sound at anything approaching the volume produced by an orchestra with full brass and percussion sections. Much of the effect felt by these audiences was directly attributed to the awe they experienced in the presence of such a massive and well-shaped sound. Early amplification technology simply could not compete with 100+ musicians playing their hearts out on stage, although it did lead to the rise of the “crooner” singing phenomenon, epitomized by such luminaries as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. The electronic enhancements allowed for a feeling of intimacy that was simply impossible for a singer attempting to acoustically project over the sound of a large ensemble.
The orchestra maintained its place at the heart of musical society through the first half of the 20th century, as it continued to reign supreme as the grandest possible sound. Conductors like Leonard Bernstein were popular figures, famous in a way that is simply unimaginable to today’s youth. But in the 1960s, sound enhancement technology began to improve exponentially. First, Marshall created his stacked 100-watt amplifiers, and then gradually, impressive speakers wended their way from concert halls into the home. Now, a remarkably small investment of money and space can allow anyone to create noise in their home (or car) that far exceeds the volume level of an orchestra, with sound quality that many people cannot distinguish from the original. As we all know, even the most cash-strapped neophyte pre-teen bands are able to pump music towards their audiences so loud that it makes an orchestra seem weak and quaint by comparison.
To me, this appears to be the real reason for the decline in the status of the orchestra and its offshoots within contemporary society. Not only does the orchestral sound no longer awe most audiences, but the quietness of the acoustical concert experience leads to many of the traditions that can alienate new attendees. No one cares if you open a candy wrapper at an industrial rock show, or even if you scream at the top of your lungs. But the slightest of noises—even someone breathing through their nose—can completely disrupt a chamber music concert experience for people several rows away from the perpetrator. However, when we amplify orchestral instruments, they lose the beautiful roundness of their tone, and they cease to sound like the impressive music-machines that took centuries to perfect.
This loudness war should make us question the nature of our music and how we can compete within an amplified society. If not the volume, what is it that makes orchestras worth preserving? How can we keep our art growing and vital when they no longer present the most expansive musical sound ever heard?