Conceptual photography. Somebody's holding a red signal horn very close to an ear.
Turn the Volume Down, Now

Turn the Volume Down, Now

Loud music is often irresistible. I live in a noisy city, and many of us seek even more noise for pleasure. Not too long after moving to New York in 1981, I went to the now-defunct Palladium to hear Einstürzende Neubaten (“Collapsing New Buildings”), a German industrial rock group founded in 1980. Knowing little about them, but lured by the promise of amplified found objects and scrap metal, I walked through the door and nirvana appeared: gloriously, the stage was crammed with all sorts of metallic objects, including a decrepit shopping cart and a tire-less bicycle wheel. But the next morning when I wanted to recall it with pleasure, the constant low hum in my head kept throwing interfering punches.

In early 1999, Siouxsie Sioux beckoned with a solo show at Irving Plaza, which I later found out had the reputation as New York’s most ear-shattering club. As soon as she began, despite the exhilaration of being with friends, I knew that it was going to be another deadening, over-amplified evening. Sioux was magnetic, slightly anarchic, a charismatic joy. But the sound level was inescapably mauling. It was the first time in many years I felt assaulted, rather than persuaded.

In his 2009 article “The Seductive (Yet Destructive) Appeal of Loud Music,” Dr. Barry Blesser describes the physical stimulus of loudness and tries to explain why it is so attractive, comparing music to other stimulants—both legal and not—and illustrating why it can function as a “self-medicating drug.” He also describes the sacculus, a small part of the inner ear which is part of the body’s impulse-delivering chain to the brain’s pleasure centers. (Blesser has three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught electrical engineering and computer science from 1969 to 1978. He is also the co-author of the 2006 book Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture.)

Blesser argues that while turning up the volume is tempting, at a certain point (typically above 90db) those pleasant physiological effects are annihilated by the sheer decibel level—no matter what the music being played. It is the sonic equivalent of being served—or rather, forced to eat—one overindulgent dessert after another. Audio engineer Bob Katz puts it another way: “Loud music only sounds ‘better’ instantly. If it’s constantly loud, it becomes fatiguing.”

Another example—this time from the jazz/funk world—happened just three or four years ago at a memorable New Year’s celebration in Washington, D.C. The 9:30 Club has been dubbed the “best medium-sized rock venue” in the country, for its intimate atmosphere and fine acoustics—like a high-ceilinged gymnasium. I have been there often. On this occasion was Trombone Shorty (a.k.a., Troy Andrews) and his group Orleans Avenue. Andrews is an extravagantly talented musician who plays three or four other instruments in addition to the one that gives him his stage name. But when the concert began, the volume was akin to a pneumatic drill at close range. My anxiety skyrocketed. Briefly I thought about leaving, but it was New Year’s Day, the ticket was paid for, and beloved pals were nearby (what Blesser refers to as “social synchronization of brain states”).

After maybe 45 minutes, I fled to the back of the club (which offered little solace) and eventually darted outside to wait for my friends. The searing brass glare didn’t stop. And it didn’t stop the following day, either. I thought, This is it—you’ve done damage that can never be fixed.

This issue is hardly one strictly related to amplified music. A typical loud orchestral concert registers 120-137 on the decibel scale. John Corigliano’s Circus Maximus, for large wind ensemble, concludes with a gunshot. The loudest sustained volume effort of an orchestral concert I recall was in 2000, when Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall performed Edgard Varèse’s Amériques, a work with an enormous percussion array. On the decibel scale, this one was likely at 140 or higher. But the entire piece is 15 minutes, not two hours.

In the classical realm, I confess a love for elephantine orchestration: Bruckner, Mahler, Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. As one friend observed years ago, “An orchestra is the most remarkable acoustic device ever created.” He was right, but that machine can also produce sounds capable of severe damage, especially at close range and over time. In the last decade or so, in response to increasing volume levels, some orchestras have placed clear plastic acoustic baffles in front of brass or percussion sections to stop the sound from deafening the colleagues in front.

And the usual suspects among instruments—electric guitar, percussion, trumpet, trombone—are not the only ones to watch out for. The benign-looking piccolo is oddly one of the biggest offenders: since it is shorter than the flute, the sound emitted is closer to the ear and can inflict significant hearing damage to the person playing it. (Not to deny pleasure to those who like Sousa marches, but perhaps they should feel slightly guilty.)

In 2008 at Issue Project Room, the group Either/Or presented Rhys Chatham’s Two Gongs (1971), with David Shively and Alex Waterman. I had brought earplugs, which as I wrote at the time, were not just “recommended” but “mandatory.” (Thankfully, the group’s director, Richard Carrick, darted out before the concert and returned with an entire box of them.)

The roughly 40-minute piece is purity itself: two massive Chinese gongs of slightly different timbres being struck, starting at a soft murmur and escalating to the aural equivalent of a tsunami. Volume aside, much of the interest comes from the varying pitch of the two instruments and the oscillating frenzy they produce. If you want to experience gongs—the essence of “gong-ness” at its most elemental—this is the way to do it. (In retrospect, a small room that seats 100 people may not have been the proper venue; a larger one would have been able to allow the full resonance of the instruments to bloom, with perhaps less discomfort.)

Chatham’s exercise may be bundled with a certain mischievousness, and I confess a few chuckles at first at just how absurdly loud the sound became. But very soon my fingers were pressing over my earplugged ears; my hands were glued to the sides of my head for the duration. (Yes, exiting was an option, as the gradual trickle to the door showed.) And even with those layers of protection, the clangor was still making me feel like a participant in some government-sponsored experiment on the physical response of human cells to sound waves.

Over decades of listening, ear parts gradually age and deteriorate. But this is not the same as what the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), refers to as “noise induced hearing loss” (NIHD). And despite both multiple causes and multiple outcomes in different people, NIHD is preventable.

Lining the inner ear are microscopic, sensory hair cells topped with equally small projections called stereocilia. When sound travels past them, normally they vibrate and channel the sound into the brain. But when sound overwhelms them, they wither and die. They do not grow back. The NIDCD notes that 85 dB is the tipping point: music at this level played for a prolonged time will cause damage. An MP3 player at its highest setting will register 105 dB, 20 dB higher than the aforementioned tipping point. A classical concert may have peaks of 120 dB, and a rock concert can be around 150 dB. Imagine the effects of this for two hours each day. Now imagine six or eight hours a week, and the losses begin to pile up quickly.

I have nothing against amplification, per se. Amplification is an invaluable tool to help shape sound and make it suitable for spaces that may otherwise have little to offer to musicians or audiences. But to increase music’s volume to the point that any pleasure is lost—beyond what human physiology can tolerate—seems pointless and will cut short a potential lifetime of listening.

I feel lucky. Dozens of friends and acquaintances—many much younger than me—have reported mild to severe tinnitus, which the American Tinnitus Association defines as “a sensorineural reaction in the brain to damage in the ear and auditory system.” There is currently no remedy. (Some report that machines producing white noise are of some help.) Of course, loudness can occur at non-music events: a sold-out football game, exposure to heavy machinery, being near a firecracker.

For a recent concert by the Momenta Quartet, violinist Alex Shiozaki wrote a program note about the Japanese concept of “ma,” which means roughly the space between two events, or negative space. It can also refer to silence, most famously espoused by John Cage. Silence or lower volume levels are crucial to shape, as is contour. Constant loudness is not exciting, it’s numbing. In the final movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, the overwhelming detonations are effective for many reasons, some posited far in advance, but the quiet moments that surround them give them even greater impact.

Hearing music is one of humankind’s greatest pleasures: the subtle coo of Ella Fitzgerald, the sandpapery cackle of Janis Joplin, the acidic strut of Beyoncé, the granitic textures of Xenakis, the pared-down clarity of Bach’s Cello Suites, the trombone ecstasy of yet another New Orleans-based group, Bonerama. (They have a Beethoven track that is killer.) The sting of an electric guitar is a beautiful thing.

Most people, barring genetic intervention, can hear and experience music until very late in life, even if high frequencies are diminished. One friend in his mid-80s has hearing possibly more sensitive than mine—a phenomenon that may be more common than documented. Discussion on that issue will wait for another day.

I’m not arguing against “loud.” Loud is fun. Loud is even ecstasy, under the right circumstances. (Soft is good, too, perhaps especially appreciated by city dwellers.) But I’m pleading: an onslaught of extreme volume is unnecessary for a peak emotional experience, and it destroys the ability to hear sounds of all kinds.

And if it leaves you unable to hear anything at all, really, what’s the point?


Bruce Hodges

Based in New York City, Bruce Hodges is a regular contributor to The Strad and Musical America, and North American editor for Seen & Heard International. He has written articles for Lincoln Center and London’s Southbank Centre, and wrote a long-running column on recordings for The Juilliard Journal.

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3 thoughts on “Turn the Volume Down, Now

  1. John Branch

    Writing with a cold in my head, I may be forgetting a lot, but it’s my impression that in nature, our ancestors wouldn’t have routinely encountered very loud noises. (Some comparisons would be fun, e.g. a hurricane versus an airport, but I don’t have time to look them up.) Our hearing system is a wonder for the dynamic range it can accommodate, as is our visual system. But we’ve managed to invent things that put our hearing and our vision to severe tests, and that can wear down their edge, so to speak, over time. I’m with you, Bruce, in preferring a bit of moderation.

    Reply
  2. John Branch

    I’m basically with you, Bruce: “an onslaught…is unnecessary.” Extremes of loudness, as of quiet, have their appeal, but repeated exposure to the loud stuff over time can wear down the sharp edge of our hearing.

    Reply
  3. Erica Pomerance

    Interesting analysis and I am 100 % of your opinion. I love all sorts of music but detest overloud aplificiation in any kind of venue, it drowns out subtle variations and detracts from the quality of
    the music that’s actually being mae.

    Reply

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