How much music does an average American consume in an average day? Is there such a thing as musical overload, an auditory equivalent to overeating? What are the physiological and psychological symptoms of Musical Overdose (MO)? Are we in the midst of an epidemic that no one seems to have noticed? Is it a conspiracy (why not)? Should the Surgeon General prescribe a musical RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) that must appear on all CD labels? Besides, how do we measure musical intake anyway? Maybe we need some kind of listening calorie scale that factors in the musical style, the loudness in decibels, and the number of hours our eardrums and auditory cortex are inundated with deliberate or inadvertent musical assault. I say inadvertent because even if you are that rare unplugged specimen with no earbuds in your ears, you are still subject to secondhand inhalation.
I am in a coffee shop right now trying to write this piece on my laptop. James Taylor is singing on the house speakers and two ringtones (Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Lady Gaga’s Just Dance) have chirped next to me in succession in the last two minutes. I can’t write or think with music in the background. The part of my brain designed to listen to music takes over and shuts down all other processing centers. So I escape to a nearby park, praying that my battery will last. I sit down on a bench but even before reaching for my laptop I hear this gargled distorted whine with an annoying steady beat. What the heck, in the park? I look around, and sure enough on the next bench over sits a guy listening to his iPod, on earphones! What I hear is just the exhaust fumes, the few high frequencies that manage to escape his earphones. He is sitting twelve feet away. I can’t imagine the assault on his nervous system that’s going on inside those ears.
You get the picture.
I enter a grocery store and am forced to listen to an ancient Frank Sinatra hit as I check the ripeness of an avocado (Take me to the Moon). I enter the lobby of the office tower on my way to my dental appointment to the strains of some generic Vivaldi (classy) then sit in the waiting room and forced to listen to some vintage Muzak (not so classy), my alarm clock doesn’t buzz, it plays music. The NPR news I listen to on my way to work punctuates the latest disasters from around the world with cheerful little music jingles, as if to underline the fact that we are inside some giant movie plot with a happy ending just around the corner.
What’s happening worldwide is not mere increased listening. It’s gorging, the stuff serious food addicts or junkies go to rehab for. The more we consume the less impact the music has. The more all-pervasive the musical experience becomes the blander it seems, and to keep getting that “hit” we crave, the music must get louder.
Measurements taken on dance floors have registered decibel levels equivalent to standing next to a full-throttled jet engine without protective headgear. Participants in Rock concerts actually “listen” with their entire body, not just their ears. The high volume speakers are intended to deliver physical vibrations to the whole body, like repeated punches to the stomach. Even your neighborhood movie theater, using Dolby high-octane surround sound delivers audio levels that would have sent your parents’ generation scurrying for cover.
The loudness per se would be less critical if we were subjected to it sparingly. Our ancestors enjoyed music in small doses, after work perhaps in the pub, during a celebration, or the occasional concert. Music appeared as a relief from everyday sounds, the sound of horse drawn carriages or barking dogs. It needed no boost to draw attention to itself. Today the everyday backdrop is all music, all the time, and everywhere. There are no more music-free spaces on earth except perhaps in the middle of the Pacific ocean. In this homogenous musical soup the only way to stand out is to be louder and more abrasive.
The ubiquity of music is only one of a host of other reasons why the decibels of music continue to rise to dangerous levels. Equally responsible is the general level of noise around us that desensitizes our hearing and makes us turn up the volume. In fact it is a classic feedback loop. The louder the music you listen to the more your brain lowers the sensitivity of the ear to protect itself, causing you to hear less and in turn raise the volume even more. This process has accelerated over the last few years with the near-universal usage of in-ear earphones for both portable music devices and cell phones. Numerous studies have linked rising hearing impairment in young adults to these devices.
Consider the fact that most people keep the earphones plugged in their ears while engaging in other activities like conversation, shopping, or riding the subway. Many of these activities take place in extremely noisy environments that compete with what you are listening to on your earphones. So you raise the volume even more. Listening to multiple loud sound sources that compete with each other is unpleasant in any circumstance, but having the ability to artificially intensify one of these signals without lowering the others is not only unnatural it is downright hazardous. Add the fact that in-ear earphones, the kind preferred by most users, act in the most egregious manner as far as our ear is concerned, in fact mimicking the act of someone shouting directly into your ear, something quite rare under natural circumstances, and doing so hour after hour, day in and day out, and you have a recipe for mass deafness.
Is there a ceiling, a cut-off point, a moment where some external force (perforated eardrums, bleeding, state regulation) intervene to impose a limit, perhaps restoring some islands of silence, or at least a greater scarcity of music, and more tolerable levels of listening?
To answer this question it might be enlightening to compare sound to speed. Leaving aside the speed of light that no one seriously contemplates approaching, speed of travel, by car or by air, does not really have natural limits that cannot be overcome by engineering. Theoretically you could build a consumer car traveling at 300 miles an hour (yes, without lifting off), or an airplane rocketing its passengers at Mach 3. The reason you won’t see anything approaching these speeds is not that they can’t be achieved but that external limitations make them either impractical or unlawful. What would be the point of manufacturing a passenger car that goes at airplane speeds when the road it would be traveling on has a speed limit of 65 miles per hour imposed by the state legislature? And the reason, at least the official reason, for this imposed limit is safety.
The same goes for sound levels. While music engineers and film producers may continue to raise the sound level until at 180 decibels your entire body will be shaking and your eardrums will pop out of your ears, there is no doubt that the ensuing mass deafness will be recognized by society as a health hazard and a ceiling will be imposed.
But you don’t need to go that far. Unfortunately, even at the average 100 db levels experienced right now in most earphones, an entire generation of humans in industrialized nations is going deaf, from both excessive impact on the body’s hearing mechanisms and overexposure to music.
I am eagerly awaiting the legislation that will designate a “music free” environment, first in public places and then gradually everywhere. I can’t wait for people to huddle around some illegitimate boom-box outside an office building, surreptitiously listening to some very soft music, looking furtively around like smokers.
And that Surgeon Genral’s white label on the front of CDs “This product may be dangerous to your health” is long overdue.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)