“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain,” Bob Marley famously sang on the Wailers 1973 single “Trenchtown Rock.” The message has been adopted as a maxim for the distinctive duality of music as something intangible yet deeply affecting, and has since gone on to become a common quote for both rappers and kitschy home decor.
Yet as universal as the quote feels, it’s not quite accurate.
Music is hitting us from all angles. In our age of on-demand streaming, we surround ourselves with music at all times of the day—whenever we drive or ride public transit, while working out or making dinner, or perhaps to tune out distractions at the office (or home office). During our evenings and weekends (pandemic permitting) we dance beneath canopies of speakers at concerts and nightclubs; we fight to have a conversation over the classic rock blaring at our local bar.
Although we might not always sense the pain, there are significant costs to music’s ubiquitousness in modern life. The World Health Organization found in an analysis of young people’s listening habits that almost 50 percent listen to music on their personal devices at unsafe levels. More people take on added risk by regularly going out for live music or to clubs. Yet not enough of us are aware of the harm we put ourselves in when popping on our headphones or heading to a show.
Not enough of us are aware of the harm we put ourselves in when popping on our headphones or heading to a show.
Loud music sounds better to us, not as a personal preference but as a physiological rule. Its greater intensity activates the balance and sensory organs, which amplifies the feeling of music vibrating through our bodies. That releases stress-relieving endorphins, and helps explain why we find music to be so emotionally powerful.
Beyond physical arousal, qualitative research has uncovered three primary reasons for our inclination toward higher volumes. First, loud music makes us more social, fostering a single group identity under a blanket of shared songs and rhythms. The cover of volume can also remove individual inhibitions: think about the aspects of one’s personality that can be uniquely activated by stepping out onto the dance floor or singing your heart out during karaoke. Auditory arousal pumps up adrenaline, letting us tap into music as a well of aural-induced confidence.
This becomes a world unto itself, which is the second reason for our preference for volume: escapism. Loud music masks unpleasant feelings by literally drowning out the brain’s other senses. This is why cranking up Kendrick Lamar during a run helps me maintain concentration, or putting on Lorde following a breakup has given me the proper mental space to process challenging emotions (or at least wallow in them). It’s also one of the reasons why attending a music festival can feel like an authentic break from reality. When being sonically bombarded, you don’t have the bandwidth to be distracted by negative or unwanted thoughts. You’re in a heightened state that feels detached from prior context, which makes immersing yourself in sound an unparalleled method of release.
That immersion is comforting for our self-conception as well. Simply put, loud music can make us feel cooler. We might imagine ourselves like lead characters in our own movies, custom soundtracks underlining the themes of our lives. But we also gravitate toward loud music because it signals outwardly to others something we want it to say about ourselves. Teenagers, for example, are often drawn to the music they like as a personal marker of who they are, and hearing at full blast the songs that speak strongest to them can reinforce their self-identity.
If we know the upper limits of what is safe and what we actually enjoy, why does the world increasingly push past those points?
Unfortunately for us, there is an overlap between pleasurable loudness and dangerous loudness, so while music at a higher volume sounds better, it comes with a neurological toll. With higher volumes, we get increased enjoyment, but also harm the cells in our ear that respond to sound, which once damaged malfunction and are irreplaceable (at least for now).
The effect of excessive sound is common to anyone who’s come home from a night out to find their ears still ringing long after the music’s stopped. That internal siren is called tinnitus and is the sensation of the hair cells responsible for processing pitch misfiring after sufficient wear and tear. Tinnitus, both short-term and more permanent, and hearing loss are common byproducts of listening at unsafe levels. Decades of intense subjection from recording and performing have left many of the most beloved rock stars, like Ozzy Osbourne and The Who’s Pete Townshend, nearly deaf or suffering from severe tinnitus. Yet as speakers get better and live music continues its prepandemic growth in popularity, the danger has become increasingly exposed to the fans who watch them perform.
These aren’t the only risks concertgoers face—stress, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive impairment are all possible results of undue time spent under auditory strain (be it from music or other environmental noise like freeways, aircrafts, or power tools).
Yet there doesn’t seem to be a reason to put ourselves through this in the pursuit of musical appreciation. The increased gratification of louder music has been documented to plateau right around 100 dB. Still the average rock concerts sits at 115 dB. In the front rows of a stadium show, the sound can often get much higher. The U.S. Center for Disease Control describes prolonged exposure to noise above 85 decibels as dangerous, but anything past 120 dB is considered immediately harmful (note: because decibels are logarithmic, 120 decibels isn’t twice as loud as 60, but more than 60 times as loud).
So if we know the upper limits of what is safe and what we actually enjoy, why does the world increasingly push past those points? In a 2017 study, the professor and clinician pair David Welch and Guy Fremaux looked to answer what causes us to seek out sounds beyond what we are built to handle. They went to the source, interviewing nightclub owners on their rationale for setting the sound at deafening volumes. They found that venue operators seem to be adjusting their spaces to what they think they know about their customers. “[Music] needs to be loud at nightclubs, everyone expects it and it’s what they go for,” one owner proclaimed. As the volume becomes inextricable from the reputation these spaces cultivate, deviating from this norm is competitively riskier.
“Loud sound shows the club, bar, or even party, is on and the doors are open,” another reasoned. In other words, just as the smell of freshly baked bread (or Cinnabon at the mall) pours onto the street, so too does loud music.
When buying a concert seat online, many ticketing websites show you a preview of your sightline from different sections of the venue; could they also provide information on volume levels for different seats?
For anyone who justifiably cannot live without live music, but wants to preserve their capacity to appreciate it over the long-run, concert-specific earplugs are available to help push back the tide of sound-induced hearing loss. And there is evidence that simply learning about the health risks of loud music spurs listeners’ intentions to take precaution. But listeners are rarely informed of their options, nor the need for them. Most unknowingly put themselves at risk thinking they are just participating in a harmless form of recreation, an information asymmetry that venue owners have a responsibility to resolve.
When we turn up the sound on our headphones or home speakers, we should receive an alert when we hit potentially harmful levels.
We can do more, and the current nationwide return to live music after a prolonged hiatus offers us a moment to reset our norms around noise. We are able to reliably tell what amount of noise exposure participants are experiencing, and research suggests that setting regulated guidelines on sound levels results in shows taking place at safer volumes. Even outside of any legal mandates, we can display information about the health impacts concertgoers face. When buying a seat online, many ticketing websites show you a preview of your sightline from different sections of the venue; could they also provide information on volume levels for different seats?
The same goes for recorded music; when we turn up the sound on our headphones or home speakers, we should receive an alert when we hit potentially harmful levels. Offering feedback on how loud a setting is above a safe threshold would help consumers make a more informed decision about the noise they’re willing to expose themselves to, and how might they take matters into their own ears.
We live in a world that is louder at baseline than it’s ever been. We face the threat daily, during seemingly innocuous moments in our lives—the subway, construction, or a passing ambulance all hover around or above 100 dB. Music should be a respite from that dissonance, not a contributor. We’re understandably craving a sense of normalcy that listening to music at concerts and clubs can provide. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of our ability to hear those sounds throughout the rest of our lives. It is on the music industry to provide greater transparency and choice for the decisions we make as listeners, allowing us to prioritize our safety and comfort in a way that can correct the current market incentive to blare the volume. We know that just because you feel no pain doesn’t mean the music can’t hurt you. But that doesn’t mean it has to either.
Disclosure: Pranav Trewn is an employee of ideas42, which provides financial support to Behavioral Scientist as a Founding Partner. Founding Partners do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine.