You’re walking down the sidewalk to class and feeling good. The sun is out, and it’s unseasonably warm for November. You just aced that test, so you deserve a victory song as you walk down Rugar back to your apartment.
You place your earbuds into your ears and crank your favorite song. Who cares if it’s so loud that the person walking next to you can hear it? You just want to jam out, so you do.
As you’re having your own personal party in your head, you may not know the damage that’s going on up there.
I’ve always heard you shouldn’t listen to your music too loudly, but I’m guilty of it. When I’m walking home, at the gym or trying to drown out sounds like my upstairs neighbors having a tap-dancing contest above me, I’ll crank the music I really enjoy.
My mom would always scold me when I was younger when I’d slap a CD into my walkman and dance around to N*Sync. If she could hear the music coming straight from my headphones, it was too loud. She’d give me a slap upside the head and tell me to turn it down. But I continuously ignored her because I knew what I could handle, right?
Wrong. What may seem like a loudness you can stand isn’t always a healthy level of sound exposure.
I’m a communication disorders and sciences major, and this semester I’m taking a course in audiology. I’ve been learning about the potential of noise-induced hearing loss, and it’s no joke. My audiology professor, Dr. Gambino, gave a lesson with us about a month ago and she discussed this type of hearing loss. She gave all of us three pipe-cleaners for the activity.
In your inner ear, you have tiny hair cells that charge sound into electrical signals. The hair cells are stimulated by a shearing effect. Those signals are sent to the brain, which recognizes them as sound. The loud sounds can harm these hair cells, so much so that they stop working completely.
We took the pipe-cleaners and she told us to softly brush our hands over them as she played a music video at a normal volume. Our hands represented the shearing effect that occurs when sound is presented to the ear.
As she increased the volume of the video, she told us to brush our hands against the pipe-cleaners with more force. This continued until the video was at maximum volume and our pipe-cleaners had been crunched and bent out of their original shape.
When she turned the music off, she told us to attempt to straighten back out our pipe-cleaners. No matter how much we tried, they didn’t return to their original shape. Essentially, this is what happens to your hair cells when you listen to loud music.
So how loud is “too loud”?
It all really depends on your exposure time and decibel level. I’ll give you an idea of what decibel levels are like. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the normal speaking-level for humans is 40 dB to 60 dB. A rock concert is between 110 dB to 120 dB, but if you’re standing directly in front of the speaker it could reach 140 dB. At maximum volume, headphones are typically 105 dB. Your headphones are too loud if the person next to you can hear your music.
You shouldn’t expose yourself to constant elevated noise for more than a few hours.
It’s also important to know if you have a history of hearing loss in your family. Long, loud exposure to sound can lead straight into hearing loss in your later years.
Although you may think you’re invincible now, you could be looking into a future of hearing aids and doctor’s appointments.
Just be aware of how loud your music is because noise-induced hearing loss is nothing to laugh at. Find your happy, healthy threshold and stay there.
You’ll be doing your ears a favor in the long-run.
Email Courtney Casey at firstname.lastname@example.org