Why do we Love Loudness?

Joul's scream

Photo by L.Bö

Why do we humans enjoy doing things that might be harmful?  Some people are crazy about dangerous activities like skydiving, extreme skiing and jumping off high cliffs wearing wingsuits.  In comparison, listening to loud music seems tame!  But the hearing loss and tinnitus that can result from too much loud music can be truly devastating, so we all need to turn it down or put in those earplugs, to protect the hearing that allows us to enjoy the music in the first place.

Interestingly, it seems that humans have always found ways to make loud sound and loud music. An early type of drum consisted of a pit dug in the ground, covered with heavy bark; dancing on the top of the pit produced a hollow, resonant sound.  Stone Age people also blew into hollowed-out animal horns to produce shrill, piercing tones.  And my favorite example is the bull-roarer–a thin piece of bone attached to a leather thong, which makes a roaring sound that is audible for miles when whirled in the air.  Such early noise-makers are thought to have been used mainly in warfare and for religious rites: to terrify and control, or to create a sense of wonder and mystery.

During the 19th century, people began to use principles of electromagnetism and novel ways to transform one type of energy to another.  These discoveries opened the door to new and louder musical sounds.  Since the advent of amplified music, there has been an increased demand for louder and louder instruments.  The sound pressure at concerts today often reaches levels that can damage fans’ hearing within minutes, but many enjoy it and come back for more.

I have collected survey data and anecdotal comments from people who enjoy loud music since 1995.  When asked to describe the feeling, common themes come up, such as a sense of power, strong connection to the music, and physical responses.  Here are a few examples

  • “Loud music allows me to completely ignore the outside world.”
  • “When you hear something that just grabs you, you want the volume cranked up so that you can feel it throughout your whole body, and let it pour into your soul.”
  • “Listening to loud music helps me to relieve stress.”

And it’s not just music!  Motorcycles, skimobiles, jet skiing, car racing, boom cars and shooting are other examples of dangerously loud activities with enthusiastic followings for whom the high sound pressure level is part of the pleasure.

As speech and hearing professionals, we are often in the position to counsel our clients, friends and family members to protect their hearing from loud activities they consider enjoyable.  How do you find the right words and the right tone of voice to reach someone who is hooked on listening to their favorite tunes through earphones while dodging rush hour traffic?  If you have an anecdote, suggestion, strategy, or even a simple phrase about promoting healthy listening in your community, please share it by posting a comment.

 

Ann Dix, CCC-A, grew up in a musical family and became interested in speech and hearing through her background playing and singing in rock and roll bands.   She has been a clinical faculty member of Boston University’s Speech Language and Hearing Sciences department since 1997.  Ann blogs at Now Hear This, a Boston University blog about sound and hearing.