Can Listening to Loud Music Damage Your Ears?

The short answer is yes. Noise induced hearing loss is gradual, preventable, and cumulative. But there are distinct types of hearing loss from loud noise that causes acoustic trauma. Usually, acoustic trauma refers to a single exposure to a loud or intense sound.

Key takeaways:
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    Music induced risks of hearing loss are well established and prevention strategies vary.
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    Non-occupational, high-intensity music listening has been clearly linked to temporary hearing impairment and disturbances in the setting of pop and rock music concerts.
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    Education about the hearing risks of loud music exposure can still play a key role in hearing health protection.
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    The dangers of listening to personal music players or smartphones have been difficult to define because of the lack of consensus in the literature.
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    Since sounds are not clearly offensive to the ear until they reach 120 dB, and since TTS is often insidious, the exposure to loud noises remains popular despite apparent risks.
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    The unique response in listeners to the sound of music: unlike other sounds (airplanes, lawn mowers, etc.), music can be played quite loudly without becoming annoying, especially if the music is well liked.

There are temporary or permanent threshold shifts. Threshold means the point at which you can hear a sound.

Temporary threshold shift is typically related to acute noise-induced hearing loss. This is the hearing loss and often ringing or tinnitus after being exposed to loud noise such as at a music concert or after witnessing a loud explosion.

The problem with listening to loud noise is more about sustained noise exposure. That type of sound, such as listening to loud noise for extended periods of time, is what can cause permanent threshold shifts, or permanent damage.

What is loud?

Everyone is familiar with the measurement of sound using decibels (dB). The bel is seldom used, and it is derived from the work of Alexander Graham Bell.

The decibel is a relative unit of measurement equal to one tenth of a bel. It expresses the ratio of two values of a power or root-power quantity on a logarithmic scale.

Humans have a normal threshold of around 0 dB. Because of the way loudness is measured, a doubling of loudness is roughly 10 dB.

A whisper is about 30 dB, normal conversation is about 60 dB, and a motorcycle engine running is about 95 dB. Noise above 70 dB over a prolonged period of time may start to damage your hearing. Loud noise above 120 dB can cause immediate harm to your ears.

Environmental noise such as music is a preventable cause of hearing loss

Noise from nonoccupational activities such as music is given the term socioacusis. It is different from injurious noise from the workplace and that is called occupational noise-induced hearing loss (ONIHL).

ONIHL is more common and typically viewed as a more severe problem than socioacusis because:

  • The threat of loss of employment may convince people to remain in environments with unacceptably high noise levels.
  • In the workplace, elevated levels of noise may be sustained on a regular basis all day over many years. An example is a machine shop or automobile repair shop.
  • Hearing protection may be challenging because of safety issues.

Not surprisingly, sustained exposure to loud noise or socioacusis can be deemed “annoying.” The annoying quality of sustained noise varies with the individual, but researchers postulate the annoying quality of loud noises may serve as a warning that it is adversely affecting health or doing actual damage to the auditory system.

The annoying, persistent loud noises reduce processing capacities, thereby making it tougher to perform tasks. Some individuals who are particularly sensitive to noise are less able to perform simple tasks such as multiplication.

Both socioacusis and workplace noise can increase fatigue and irritability. Noise protection that attenuates unwanted background noise could produce significant improvement in irritability and fatigue symptoms.

A simple measurement of the physical intensity of a sound stimulus cannot assess the potential damage to the inner ear. The human ear does not respond equally to all frequencies. In fact, high frequencies are much more damaging than low frequencies at the same loudness or physical intensity levels.

Therefore, even with prolonged loud music, sound engineers and musicians often use sound level meters equipped with a filter to which the human ear is less sensitive. This filter is known as an A filter. Measurements taken using the A filter are known as dBA or the A level of a sound pressure meter.

What does prolonged listening to loud music do to our ears?

Many experts believe that prolonged listening to loud music can cause damage, which can be measured using temporary threshold shift measurements.

Temporary threshold shift (TTS) refers to the temporary hearing impairment that usually occurs after exposure to intense noise, the threshold being the quietest sound distinguished by the individual.

Temporary threshold shift is known to increase in constant noise in direct proportion to the logarithm of exposure time and to decay in inverse proportion to the logarithm of recovery time.

Repeated temporary threshold shifts can lead to accumulated cellular damage in the inner ear which can cause permanent threshold shifts.

The precise relationship between temporary threshold shifts and permanent threshold shifts has not been determined yet. Studies are underway.

Who is at most risk?

Rock and jazz musicians are at the top of the list for loud noise exposure because of their music. It is estimated that an average of 20% of rock musicians suffer from permanent hearing loss. Many suffer from tinnitus and hyperacusis, a collapsed tolerance to normal environmental sounds. Others can have sound distortion and diplacusis or hearing the same tone at two different pitches.

Hearing protection has been shown to be effective long-term, but most musicians complain about hearing protection affecting their abilities to perform at their best.

A second major cause is the use of personal music players (PMPs) – Walkman, discman, mp3 players, etc. – but the exact music induced hearing loss is not clear. The ownership of these devices, particularly now with the use of smartphones, has been associated with the risks of hearing loss.

In one study, individuals were advised to listen for one hour to “loud but still comfortable music level” with the aim of investigating discomfort perceptions as well as changes in hearing post-exposure. Individuals reported positive TTSs 60 minutes post-exposure.

Other research studies using personal hearing devices showed no convincing evidence of permanent hearing loss or damage and only mild post-use TTS.

It appears that the damage to the inner ear occurs with those listeners who habitually exceed seven hours of moderate music intensity, above 70 dB.

There are significant risks to exposure to loud music and other intense noises. Sustained exposure, such as listening to loud noise for extended periods of time, is what can cause permanent threshold shifts, or permanent damage.


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