Why ear plugs are great for clubbing and concerts

I enjoy clubbing and pop/rock concerts exclusively with my ear plugs in. Does that mean I miss out? No, I enjoy the music exactly as it is meant to be.


Picture by Melianis at fi.wikipedia (CC BY 2.5)

Since 2004 the urban dictionary includes the term ‘deaf rave’ to describe a ‘rave, or party, organised by deaf people for deaf people, though hearing people are invited also’. Deaf people at a rave? Do they come for the flashy lights? No, the phenomenon behind deaf people’s enjoyment of raves is at the heart of why I wear ear plugs when going clubbing.

Deaf people enjoy loud music – i.e. strong air vibrations – through their skin – an organ signalling vibrating input. Hearing people’s skin is no different but we often fail to notice our skin-hearing because ear-hearing trumps it, given its greater sensitivity. However, once the volume is cranked up, as at many night clubs and concerts, the skin can do remarkable things.

For example, ordinary people can distinguish instruments whose sounds they can only feel on their backs (even deaf people can do this) (Russo et al., 2012). Moreover, ear-hearing can be affected by skin-hearing. When hearing different rhythms through the skin and the ears, people are worse at distinguishing the currently heard rhythm from a previous one, compared to the case of just ear-hearing the current rythm (Huang et al., 2012). Thus, the skin is an important organ for music listening. You cannot just ignore it.

All I do when putting in ear plugs in the night club is that I give my skin a slight advantage. And this advantage makes the music more intimate. Think about it, the skin is an organ which usually only reacts to objects which are extremely close. Compare this to our ears and eyes which react to objects far away. Seeing and ear-hearing a band is something we do at a distance. Skin-hearing a band creates an illusory proximity, as if the music was right there on your skin.


Picture by By Darshan08 (CC BY-SA 3.0) via wikimedia commons

I believe that this illusory proximity through skin-hearing is a major motivation behind the loudness one experiences in clubs and at concerts. Ear plugs are great for your intimate full-body experience of the music. The loudness of the music is not meant for ears. The proof of this seemingly nonsensical statement lies in the statistics of hearing loss. About half the people exposed to loud music during work have some hearing loss. This includes the musicians themselves, whether classical or rock/pop. And the audience is not immune either. The majority of rock concert attendees experience temporary auditory problems such as tinnitus or being hard of hearing (Zhao et al., 2010).

Clubbing and pop/rock concert music is simply too loud for unprotected ears. It is meant for the skin. Give your skin an advantage and protect your hearing with a simple, cheap, handy device: ear plugs.

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Huang J, Gamble D, Sarnlertsophon K, Wang X, & Hsiao S (2013). Integration of auditory and tactile inputs in musical meter perception. Advances in experimental medicine and biology, 787, 453-61 PMID: 23716252

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

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

Broca’s area processes both music and language at the same time

When you read a book and listen to music, the brain doesn’t keep these two tasks nicely separated. In a new article just out, I show that there is a brain area which is busy with both tasks at the same time (Kunert et al., 2015). This brain area might tell us a lot about what music and language share.


The brain area which you see highlighted in red on this picture is called Broca’s area. Since the 19th century, many people believe it to be ‘the language production part of the brain’. However, a more modern theory proposes that this area is responsible for combining elements (e.g., words) into coherent wholes (e.g., sentences), a task which needs to be solved to understand and produce language (Hagoort, 2013). In my most recent publication, I found evidence that at the same time as combining words into sentences, this area also combines tones into melodies (Kunert et al., 2015).

What did I do with my participants in the MRI scanner?

Take for example the sentence The athlete that noticed the mistresses looked out of the window. Who did the noticing? Was it the mistresses who noticed the athlete or the athlete who noticed the mistresses? In other words, how does noticed combine with the mistresses and the athlete? There is a second version of this sentence which uses the same words in a different way: The athlete that the mistresses noticed looked out of the window. If you are completely confused now, I have achieved my aim of giving you a feeling for what a complicated task language is. Combining words is generally not easy (first version of the sentence) and sometimes really hard (second version of the sentence).

Listening to music can be thought of in similar ways. You have to combine tones or chords in order to hear actual music rather than just a random collection of sounds. It turns out that this is also generally not easy and sometimes really hard. Check out the following two little melodies. The text is just the first example sentence above, translated into Dutch (the fMRI study was carried out in The Netherlands).

If these examples don’t work, see more examples on my personal website here.

Did you notice the somewhat odd tone in the middle of the second example? Some people call this a sour note. The idea is that it is more difficult to combine such a sour note with the other tones in the melody, compared to a more expected note.

So, now we have all the ingedients to compare the combination of words into a sentence (with an easy and a difficult kind of combination) and tones in a melody (with an easy and a difficult kind of combination). My participants heard over 100 examples like the ones above. The experiment was done in an fMRI scanner and we looked at the brain area highlighted in red above: Broca’s area (under your left temple).

What did I find in the brain data?

The height of the bars represents the difference in brain activity signal between the easy and difficult versions of the sentences. As you can see, the bars are generally above zero, i.e. this brain area displays more activity for more difficult sentences (not a significant main effect in this analysis actually). I show three bars because the sentences were sung in three different music versions: easy (‘in-key’), hard (‘out-of-key’), or with an unexpected loud note (‘auditory anomaly’). As you can see the easy version of the melody (left bar) or the one with the unexpected loud note (right bar) hardly lead to an activity difference between easy and difficult sentences. It is the difficult version (middle bar) which does. In other words: when this brain area is trying to make a difficult combination of tones, it suddenly has great trouble with the combination of words in a sentence.

What does it all mean?

This indicates that Broca’s area uses the same resources for music and language. If you overwhelm this area with a difficult music task, there are less resources available for the language task. In a previous blog post, I have argued that behavioural experiments have shown a similar picture (Kunert & Slevc, 2015). This experiment shows that the music-language interactions we see in people’s behaviour might stem from the activity in this brain area.

So, this fMRI study contributes a tiny piece to the puzzle of how the brain deals with the many tasks it has to deal with. Instead of keeping everything nice and separated in different corners of the head, similar tasks appear to get bundled in specialized brain areas. Broca’s area is an interesting case. It is associated with combining a structured series of elements into a coherent whole. This is done across domains like music, language, and (who knows) beyond.

[Update 13/11/2015: added link to personal website.]

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Hagoort P (2013). MUC (Memory, Unification, Control) and beyond. Frontiers in psychology, 4 PMID: 23874313

Kunert R, & Slevc LR (2015). A Commentary on: “Neural overlap in processing music and speech”. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9 PMID: 26089792

Kunert R, Willems RM, Casasanto D, Patel AD, & Hagoort P (2015). Music and Language Syntax Interact in Broca’s Area: An fMRI Study. PloS one, 10 (11) PMID: 26536026

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this blog post are not necessarily shared by my co-authors Roel Willems, Daniel Casasan/to, Ani Patel, and Peter Hagoort.

Do music and language share brain resources?

When you listen to some music and when you read a book, does your brain use the same resources? This question goes to the heart of how the brain is organised – does it make a difference between cognitive domains like music and language? In a new commentary I highlight a successful approach which helps to answer this question.

On some isolated island in academia, the tree of knowledge has the form of a brain.

How do we read? What is the brain doing in this picture?

When reading the following sentence, check carefully when you are surprised at what you are reading:

After | the trial | the attorney | advised | the defendant | was | likely | to commit | more crimes.

I bet it was on the segment was. You probably thought that the defendant was advised, rather than that someone else was advised about the defendant. Once you read the word was you need to reinterpret what you have just read. In 2009 Bob Slevc and colleagues found out that background music can change your reading of this kind of sentences. If you hear a chord which is harmonically unexpected, you have even more trouble with the reinterpretation of the sentence on reading was.

Why does music influence language?

Why would an unexpected chord be problematic for reading surprising sentences? The most straight-forward explanation is that unexpected chords are odd. So they draw your attention. To test this simple explanation, Slevc tried out an unexpected instrument playing the chord in a harmonically expected way. No effect on reading. Apparently, not just any odd chord changes your reading. The musical oddity has to stem from the harmony of the chord. Why this is the case, is a matter of debate between scientists. What this experiment makes clear though, is that music can influence language via shared resources which have something to do with harmony processing.

Why ignore the fact that music influences language?

None of this was mention in a recent review by Isabelle Peretz and colleagues on this topic. They looked at where in the brain music and language show activations, as revealed in MRI brain scanners. This is just one way to find out whether music and language share brain resources. They concluded that ‘the question of overlap between music and speech processing must still be considered as an open question’. Peretz call for ‘converging evidence from several methodologies’ but fail to mention the evidence from non-MRI methodologies.1

Sure one has to focus on something, but it annoys me that people tend focus on methods (especially fancy expensive methods like MRI scanners), rather than answers (especially answers from elegant but cheap research into human behaviour like reading). So I decided to write a commentary together with Bob Slevc. We list no less than ten studies which used a similar approach to the one outlined above. Why ignore these results?

If only Peretz and colleagues had truly looked at ‘converging evidence from several methodologies’. They would have asked themselves why music sometimes influences language and why it sometimes does not. The debate is in full swing and already beyond the previous question of whether music and language share brain resources. Instead, researchers ask what kind of resources are shared.

So, yes, music and language appear to share some brain resources. Perhaps this is not easily visible in MRI brain scanners. Looking at how people read with chord sequences played in the background is how one can show this.

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Kunert, R., & Slevc, L.R. (2015). A commentary on “Neural overlap in processing music and speech” (Peretz et al., 2015) Frontiers in Human Neuroscience : doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00330

Peretz I, Vuvan D, Lagrois MÉ, & Armony JL (2015). Neural overlap in processing music and speech. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 370 (1664) PMID: 25646513

Slevc LR, Rosenberg JC, & Patel AD (2009). Making psycholinguistics musical: self-paced reading time evidence for shared processing of linguistic and musical syntax. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 16 (2), 374-81 PMID: 19293110
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1 Except for one ECoG study.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this blog post are not necessarily shared by Bob Slevc.

Old people are immune against the cocktail party effect

Imagine standing at a cocktail party and somewhere your name gets mentioned. Your attention is immediately grabbed by the sound of your name. It is a classic psychological effect with a new twist: old people are immune.

Someone mention my name?

The so-called cocktail party effect has fascinated researchers for a long time. Even though you do not consciously listen to a conversation around you, your own name can grab your attention. That means that unbeknownst to you, you follow the conversations around you. You check them for salient information like your name, and if it occurs you quickly switch attention to where your name was mentioned.

The cocktail party simulated in the lab

In the lab this is investigated slightly differently. Participants listen to one ear and, for example, repeat whatever they hear. Their name is embedded in what they hear coming in to the other (unattended) ear. After the experiment one simply asks ‘Did you hear your own name?’ In a recent paper published by Moshe Naveh-Benjamin and colleagues (in press), around half of the young student participants noticed their name in such a set-up. Compare this to old people aged around 70: next to nobody (only six out of 76 participants) noticed their name being mentioned in the unattended ear.

Why this age difference? Do old people simply not hear well? Unlikely, when the name was played to the ear that they attended to, 45% of old people noticed their names. Clearly, many old people can hear their names, but they do not notice their names if they do not pay attention to this. Young people do not show such a sharp distinction. Half the time they notice their names, even when concentrating on something else.

Focusing the little attention that is available

Naveh-Benjamin and colleagues instead suggest that old people simply have less attention. When they focus on a conversation, they give it their everything. Nothing is left for the kind of unconscious checking of conversations which young people can do so well.

At the next cocktail party you can safely gossip about your old boss. Just avoid mentioning the name of the young new colleague who just started.


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Naveh-Benjamin M, Kilb A, Maddox GB, Thomas J, Fine HC, Chen T, & Cowan N (2014). Older adults do not notice their names: A new twist to a classic attention task. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition PMID: 24820668

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By Financial Times (Patrón cocktail bar) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


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.

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




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

2) The Vestibular System by Thomas Haslwanter via Wikimedia




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