The Damage of Volume

After having a tutorial full of terrifying facts thrown at us in a recent Music Technology class, I feel that it would be very worthwhile sharing some important information.

Get some ear plugs. Trust me on this.

The human ear is capable of detecting frequencies up to 26 Khz at birth. As a natural rate of decline, we lose some of this sensitivity normally through life, at a rate of 2 Khz a decade. At age 30, we can normally hear up to around 20Khz. This deterioration continues; at age 80, we can only hear up to 10 Khz. Most of these frequencies are beyond most sounds you’d hear in day to day life anyway, and it isn’t much of an issue, but if you have to hear with any great discrimination – ie if you are a musician – you’re going to want to keep the ability to hear upper harmonics in pitches as long as possible. There is no way to prevent this loss, but there are a lot of ways to speed it up.

Seriously, get some.

Seriously, get some.

Consider this. Decibels are a measurement system often used to measure the volume of sounds(then referenced as dB SPL or Sound Pressure Level). Going up by 3 decibels doubles the sound intensity level, so a sound that registers 83 decibels is twice as loud as a sound registering 80. Humans can register approximately 0 dB to 130 dB.

Let’s put some examples to these figures. A person talking at close range is about 83 decibels, about a metre or so away this drops down to 80 decibels or a little bit less. The sound of a jet taking off, if you were more or less directly under it, is about 120-130 dB, and volumes at this level usually cause immediate rupturing of the ear drum. A snare drum hit might be about 101 or 104. Rock bands naturally would be quite a bit louder than this.

Now, consider the following. It is considered safe to be exposed to a sound level of 80 dB for 8 hours continuously. As the sound volume goes up, the time you can safely hear it for decreases proportionately. You can be exposed to a sound twice as loud, 83 dB, for 4 hours. 86 dB, 2 hours. Let’s follow the scale up:

89 dB 1 hour
92 dB 30 minutes
95 dB 15 minutes
98 dB 7.5 minutes
101 dB 3.75 minutes
104 dB 1.375 minutes

And will you look at that – the sound of a snare drum for more than around 3 minutes does permanent damage to your hearing. Just because it doesn’t hurt, doesn’t mean it doesn’t damage. Pain from loud sounds doesn’t start until a fair bit louder. The effects might not be immediate, but look at any aging rock musician for the sad state that long term hearing abuse will bring about.

Figures like this are pretty terrifying to musicians, considering their vocations. I’m currently playing clarinet in the second symphony by Sibelius, which concludes with a massive fanfare hammered home by brass and timpani, which I happen to be sitting right in front of. All musicians are at serious risk, and if you haven’t thought about it before, now’s the time to do something about it. Your hearing isn’t permanent, but if you take care of it, you’ll at least be able to hear what you play after you turn 40.

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