The mysterious appeal of too loud music

Felix Baumgartner jumps

What would your next step have been?

At 39km above planet earth, would you have made Felix Baumgartner’s step off the platform? It was very dangerous, no doubt. But is this the reason why you wouldn’t have? People engage in many dangerous things. And I am not talking about skydiving. I mean the ordinary, every day kind of danger. Surely, some dangers can hardly be avoided, say road traffic (which is the leading cause of death for people in my age group). For others there is no obvious non-dangerous equivalent. But what if there was an activity with no practical value, which could easily be carried out without danger, but which nonetheless millions of people worldwide engage in? Listening to too loud music is such an activity.

Is this an exaggeration? Surely, if loud music was really dangerous, people would avoid it. Make no mistake, the scientific consensus clearly lays out the danger. Round about half the people exposed to music professionally show some hearing loss. Researchers have found worrying hearing impairments in classical musicians, rock/pop musicians, and music bar tenders. And the danger is not limited to professionals. The majority of rock concert attendees experience temporary auditory problems such as tinnitus or being hard of hearing. You are actually a daredevil when you listen to too loud music.
But this behaviour is not limited to your typical daredevil characters à la Felix Baumgartner. People flock to very loud concerts. Even toddlers prefer fast and loud music over slow and quiet music. Perhaps the clearest example for loudness’s paradoxical appeal is the band Sun 0))). Their music is without discernible rhythm, harmony or melody. Pure loudness. And still, they are successful. Hear for yourself:
The Sun 0))) concert is a good example of the mysterious attraction of too loud music but it may also offer clues for understanding why people subject themselves to it. Actually, not just this band’s concerts are too loud. Most concerts are. And so are night clubs. This is not the place to go to for a quiet night out. This is where you want energy, fun and excitement. It turns out that this is exactly what loud music is associated with. An Australian research team led by Roger Dean showed that the perceived arousal of music – whether a classical piece or Sun 0))) like noise – followed its loudness profile. Sweet melody or not, when people go out they want energetic music. And this music happens to be loud.

Beyond going out – why listen to too loud music when sitting still?

However, such an explanation can only be part of the answer. We have all seen the person on the bus with his headphones in or were annoyed by the colleague on the next desk with his music choice permeating the office through his headphones. These people are not out dancing. They look pretty low energy, if anything. And still they put their hearing at risk.
Neil Todd and Frederick Cody from the University of Manchester may offer a solution to the puzzle. They found that loud tones not only activate our sense of hearing but also our sense of balance. This happens because the nice distinction between these two modalities does not work for a structure in the ear called the saccule. It responds to head movements as well as rather low sounds. Through this structure muscles automatically react, explaining why deaf people’s muscles can nonetheless react to loud clicks whereas vestibularly impaired people’s can’t. Todd and Cody found the saccule to start reacting around the so called ‘rock’n’roll’-threshold of 105 dB. Is it just a coincidence that the beat of club music is typically in the tonal range and at the loudness level of the saccule? Could it be that the enjoyment of too loud music works through the same mechanism as the pleasure derived from baby swings, roller coasters and head banging? If so, the fun of skydiving and too loud music listening may have more in common than generally thought.
The inner ear: vestibular system (balance), auditory system (hearing) and the saccule (balance and hearing)

Yellow: Hearing. Brown: Balance. The saccule is neither.

The greatest mystery surrounding too loud music, though, are not people seeking it in quiet environments such as the bus or the office. The strangest thing is the appeal of too loud environments even when one plugs the ears. It has become more and more common to go to rock concerts with ear plugs. The obvious question is why people don’t just refrain from going to rock concerts all together and wait until concert organisers realise that they overdid it with the decibel levels.

Seeking intimacy through loudness

The final piece of the puzzle could be an idea exemplified in research done by Russo and colleagues from Ryerson University. They found that ordinary people could successfully distinguish piano, cello and trombone tones which they never heard but instead only felt on their backs. Even deaf people were able to do this. This research suggests that, yet again, the involvement of a second modality explains too loud music seeking. Hearing and vision are often grouped together because they reveal distant information. Smell, taste and touch, on the other hand, are intimate sensations only available when directly interacting with an object or person. If someone sees or hears your fiancé(e) you may not mind. But imagine if someone tried to touch or even taste him/her? There is something intimate about touch and perhaps we seek this intimacy when trying to immerse ourselves in music. Incidentally, this is also what was advertised as the novelty of Felix Baumgartner’s jump. For the first time someone can say what it felt like to break the sound barrier. Previously, people only knew what it sounded and looked like. Somehow, this was not enough. We are curious about what he will report because we attach so much importance to the immediacy of touch. For ‘touching’ music, we need loud music as our skin is a poor substitute for the sensitive ears. Through the sense of touch music can cease to be felt at a distance and, instead, become a much more personal full body experience.
Has the mystery been solved? It seems as if modern psychology offers a range of explanations for why a perfectly avoidable but harmful activity is pursued by millions of people. Loud music offers a level of energy, fun and intimacy which soft music just can’t match. If you listen to too loud music, you have more in common with daredevils like Baumgartner than you thought.
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Dean, R.T., Bailes, F., & Schubert, E. (2011). Acoustic intensity causes perceived changes in arousal levels in music: an experimental investigation. PloS one, 6 (4) PMID: 21533095

Lamont, A. (2003). Toddlers’ musical preferences: musical preference and musical memory in the early years. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 999, 518-9 PMID: 14681176

Russo, F.A., Ammirante, P., & Fels, D.I. (2012). Vibrotactile discrimination of musical timbre. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance, 38 (4), 822-6 PMID: 22708743

Todd, N.P. McAngus, & Cody, F.W. (2000). Vestibular responses to loud dance music: A physiological basis of the ‘rock and roll threshold’? Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 107 (1), 496-500 DOI: 10.1121/1.428317

Zhao, F., Manchaiah, VK., French, D., & Price, S.M. (2010). Music exposure and hearing disorders: an overview. International journal of audiology, 49 (1), 54-64 PMID: 20001447

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ResearchBlogging.org

Images:

1) Photograph by: Felix Baumgartner, Twitter via the Vancouver Sun

2) The Vestibular System by Thomas Haslwanter via Wikimedia

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2 comments

  1. The feeling of being consumed by the music is singular. It is sensuous in a way few things are. When the music is cranked up, you sense it passing through you- it is a visceral thing. As waves of harmonics sweep up and down, you get the feeling of waves rippling through you. Certain chord or key changes raise goosebumps. If you play guitar, you might make the “skank face” while bending a really high note or pinching a harmonic- because you are feeling the music almost more than hearing it. The more volume in the music, the more physical it is and that particular kind of physicality isn’t achieved any other way. I comes down to feeling good- becoming a sonically excited blob of mostly water feels amazingly good. At least I think so! :D

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