According to the researchers at the Spanish National Research Council, music is indeed louder and less varied than ever before.
In the last 50 years, pop songs have become “intrinsically louder and more bland in terms of chord, melodies, and types of sounds used,” the study states. Intrinsic loudness is applied to a song during recording, making it sound louder than other songs set at the same volume setting. The study, which appears in the journal “Scientific Reports,” explains that musicians use this method when lacking inspiration during the production process.
But is louder and less interesting music really a concern? After all, we live in a world that’s noisier than ever, and a lot of people like really loud music.
From a health perspective, loud sound can cause permanent damage to our ears.
Sound translates into energy. The energy produced by the shouting of a crowd throughout an exhilarating football game—say 50,000 people at a 90-minute game—is sufficient to warm one cup of coffee, according to Graham Chedd’s “Sound: From Communication to Noise Pollution.”
Most of us start life with hearing that is very sensitive and can distinguish more than 350,000 different sounds, including that of a mosquito buzzing outside a window.
Loudness of sound levels is measured in decibels (dB). The website Dangerous Decibels reports that sounds at 85 dB can damage hearing. An idling bulldozer at 85 dB can cause damage in just one day of work.
Loud rock music registers at 115 dB and can do damage in a much shorter time.
Listening to music with earphones and a sound system set at maximum volume can generate sound levels over 100 dB, loud enough to begin causing permanent damage after only 15 minutes a day. The sound of a gunshot (140–190 dB, depending on the weapon) can damage hearing immediately, according to Dangerous Decibels.
We would guess then, that kids exposed to rock music have hearing much like those of war veterans who have been exposed to artillery.
Studies of communities in Africa reveal an uncannily quiet environment of 35 dB, the equivalent of a normal whisper or of a quiet home or office. The Mabaan tribe of Southeast Sudan, for example, have incredibly sensitive hearing, even when they are very old, according to a study conducted in 1962 by Rosen et. al.
Comfort or stimulation?
Although music has long been considered a way to comfort both listeners and music makers, some complain that today music all sounds the same.
This complaint stems from the all too common and predictable I-IV-V chord progression in pop music. The repetitive chords leads to annoyance in some while the familiar structure brings comfort and enjoyment to others.
By the time children are 5 years old, they have learned to recognize chord progressions in the music of their culture. During the years of infancy from 1–12 months, they have yet to categorize music chord progressions of their own culture. Thus, after the age of 5, chord progression from other cultures may sound strange.
For example, for a Western audience, Persian music may sound strange when the music is heard for the first time, but it does not sound strange to Persians or infants.
Perhaps today’s loud music offers more comfort to those less familiar with the works of classical or non-Western forms of music. Other than academically trained musicians, few take time to listen to or to comprehend music that is longer than 4 minutes.
Sonatas can run 20 minutes in length and are filled with a variety of chord progressions. In addition, they are performed at volume levels far lower than the decibel levels of rock concerts.
Does the stimulation of loud music offset the boring quality of its repetition?
Loud sounds may be enough to fill our ears and trigger our brains into making us feel excitement that takes the place of our delighting in complex musical forms.
Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of the book “This is Your Brain on Music” explains “that loud music saturates the auditory system, causing neurons to fire at their maximum rate. When many, many neurons are maximally firing, this could cause an emergent property, a brain state qualitatively different from when they are firing at normal rates.”
Concertgoers have expressed that they achieve a special state of consciousness, a sense of thrills and excitement, when the music is really loud—over 115 dB.
On the other hand, loud music itself may provide comfort.
Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer is also an environmentalist. He may be best known for his World Soundscape Project and his book “The Tuning of the World” (1977), which discusses music in modern times.
Schafer explains that as music moved away from the concert hall into audio recordings, listeners could experience music in a more comfortable, familiar setting, insulated by music and by headphones.
In this setting, music acts like a wall of sound. This feeling of comfort could be connected with human’s constant longing for security, as first felt when insulated in the mother’s womb.
However experts explain it, as we increase the volume, we steer away from music that is more reflective and meditative.
Elaine Teguibon is a pianist and music educator.
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