Every year, as festival season approaches, artists, promoters, and harm reduction organizations put out PSAs telling fans to wear ear protection at these events. Organizers aren’t making shows quieter, and many have even begun to ship high-fidelity earplugs to festival attendees in advance. Everyone knows that loud noises can cause hearing damage but there are still many people riding the rail with no earplugs at all. Instead of describing how sensitive and fragile our ears are, let’s look at it from the other end and examine just how powerful sound actually is.
A loudspeaker system is not the threshold for causing hearing damage, and in fact, as a species, we have likely collectively damaged our ears within our years of living on this planet. The threshold is around 70 decibels. A busy road generally lands at 80 decibels, which means that anyone who lives near a busy road already has a minor amount of hearing damage.
While most promoters don’t release actual data about the decibel levels reached at a show, Excision’s Lost Lands boasts about adding hundreds of thousands of watts of power to the set-up every year, and they provide earplugs to everyone who buys a ticket. Concerts are LOUD, hitting anywhere from 90 decibels to 115 decibels. 120 decibels is generally considered the pain threshold where the volume and air pressure becomes intolerable, and your ears themselves distort like a blown-out speaker. 115 decibels is loud enough to cause hearing damage within fifteen to thirty minutes of sustained exposure without ear plugs. Anytime you walk away from a stage and your ears are ringing, that’s hearing damage.
Your ears contain tiny hairs called stereocilia and when those are damaged by loud noises, they release a false signal to your brain resulting in the ringing sound you hear, also known as tinnitus. High-fidelity earplugs are designed to do a flat 10 to 30-decibel reduction in volume while preserving the quality of the high and low frequencies. They are designed to work with the natural acoustics of your ears, unlike foam ear plugs which muffle all frequencies while specifically cutting out the high-end.
People with severe tinnitus have described it as sounding like there is a freight train passing them, all the time. While taking a break from loud noises can help your ears recover, the damage to them may be permanent and if you still hear ringing after a few days you may want to visit a doctor. There is no cure for tinnitus, and if you don’t continuously protect your ears it will continue to get worse. Additionally, there was a recent study that found evidence that hearing damage can be a factor in causing dementia. The case for earplugs is massive, so wear them!
Beyond sound’s ability to hurt our ears, it has many other fascinating effects on the human body. Different parts of our bodies have different resonant frequencies. If you’ve ever been front and center at a show and felt like you can see the air vibrating, that’s actually the low-end frequency matching the resonant frequencies of your eyes which causes them to vibrate. In fact, there are people (less than 1% of the population) who may find music unbearable because they are so sensitive to this kind of vibration due to something called the Tullio phenomenon.
Other parts of the body have unique resonant frequencies as well. For instance, if you’ve been to a bass music show you may have felt the air in your lungs vibrate, or the back of your throat, or the base of your spine. In an almost spiritual sense, it seems as if each of our chakra points has its own resonant frequency. Whether or not you believe in chakras, you can feel music distinctly affecting these parts of the body associated with them. Not only does sound vibrate air allowing us to hear, but it also vibrates the blood moving through our veins. The displacement of liquid by sound is a phenomenon referred to as cymatics.
If sound can affect bodies in such a way, it begs the question: what can it do to technology? It turns out that music can sometimes actually crash laptops. When the music video for Janet Jackson’s hit song “Rhythm Nation” came out, Windows XP-era laptops (and some others) would suddenly turn off if the video was played in their vicinity. The bassline from that song would hit specific resonant frequencies in the hard drives of those machines, causing them to crash even if a separate laptop was playing the song nearby. There are videos of people doing this intentionally on youtube, linked here. The solution was that hardware manufacturers had to code an audio filter on their machines to filter out the frequencies which caused the crashing.
These are all relatively tame ideas but what about sound at its absolute extreme? NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) Artemis 1 hits a whopping 200 decibels, which requires them to dump 2 million liters of water to provide sound suppression as it takes off so that the heat and pressure wave from that volume doesn’t harm the region or the rocket itself. 200 decibels releases a pressure wave that would instantly kill anyone unfortunate enough to be close to it because of barotrauma. Sound is interesting in that our ears depend on a medium, air, in this case, to transfer the information to our brain. Once sound hits a certain level, it stops vibrating the air and instead moves it away like a wall of energy, creating a shockwave. Hypothetically, a sound that was 400 decibels could completely blow Earth’s atmosphere away, and probably liquefy part of the planet in the process….
The reality is that our ears were not evolved to listen to loud music, they are very fragile. Sound is a hard force to recognize because it isn’t visible and we don’t typically carry tools to measure it. Everyone reading this should have many years to listen to great music in the future, start investing in yourself now by protecting your ears while many of us thrive in the most extreme sound environments possible.
For more information, see the following studies:
“Tullio phenomenon in superior semicircular canal dehiscence syndrome”
“Association between exposure to road traffic noise and hearing impairment: a case-control study”
“Chakra Frequency Analysis”
Featured photo by Jason Schneider
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