Musicians prefer their music loud, study concludes

On May 3, 2024 by Tim Newman
Me whacking the drums with Anacondas. Photo credit: Kan Lailey.

Scientific research isn’t all about cancer, gut bacteria, zoonotic viruses, and mitochondria — the powerhouses of the cell. Sometimes, scientists focus on more important topics, like listening to music really loud.

For instance, a study published in PLOS ONE answers a pressing question: Do musicians like listening to music louder than non-musicians? As you’ve probably already guessed, the answer is “YES PLEASE.”

Although you might be wondering why scientists would bother investigating this, noise-induced hearing loss is the second most common cause of hearing loss. 

So, I suppose, we shouldn’t scoff — it is important. As a musician, I’d like to keep my hearing in tip-top shape. Although I think that boat may have sailed. Wear earplugs, folks.

Why do we like loud music at all?

Loud music can feel great, but why? Surely a good tune would still be a good tune when it’s at a more conservative volume.

Perhaps surprisingly, scientists have been interested in this question for some time.

A study from 2000 argues that loud music (techno, in this study) activates people’s vestibular system — a sensory system that creates our sense of balance and tells us where we are in space.

Although the vestibular system doesn’t have much to do with sound, if the music is loud enough, it activates it and may give the sensation of movement. This, they believe, might help explain the so-called rock and roll threshold.

In particular, loud frequencies of around 500 Hz seem to be best at stimulating the vestibular system. Here’s what 500 Hz sounds like — it’s like low guitar feedback. Could that be why feedback before the main riff kicks in gets my blood pressure up?

In a later study, the same authors concluded that activation of the vestibular system stimulates reward centres in the brain, explaining why it feels good.

Other scientists have argued that listening to loud music shares features with substance addiction. And I can kind of see that. There can be self-harm vibes about cranking death metal when you’re in a bad mood.

Studies also show that how much you like a song influences how loud you think it is. People who don’t like rock music rate it as louder than those who do like rock music. In other words, if you love a song and listen to it loud, you might not realise quite how loud it actually is.

Musicians vs. non-musicians

Despite a healthy back catalogue of research into listening to loud music, the study we’re talking about here is the first to investigate whether musicians like it louder than non-musicians.

The authors wanted to answer three questions:

  1. Does the preferred volume level differ between musicians and non-musicians?
  2. Is there a relationship between music preference and preferred volume?
  3. Does lifetime noise exposure correlate with preferred volume?

The study recruited 17 musicians and 17 non-musicians from student campuses in Manchester.

First, they checked that all the participants could hear properly. Obviously, someone who can’t hear very well is more likely to pump up the volume. So, they carried out pure-tone audiometry, a “gold standard” hearing test.

Next, the participants listened to six 30-second music samples and one environmental sound (bird song). Here’s the banging playlist:

  1. Whole Lotta Love, Led Zeppelin
  2. Heartbeats, Jose Gonzales
  3. Crazy In Love, Beyonce
  4. Sad But True, Metallica
  5. Virtual Insanity, Jamiroquai
  6. Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67: I. Allegro con brio, Ludwig Van Beethoven et al

The scientists made sure that all tracks contained 500 Hz frequencies to ensure their vestibular system got activated.

They asked participants to adjust the volume until the music was “suitably loud and enjoyable.” Participants heard each track three times and the researchers noted the average volume level for each. They also told the researchers which were their favourite and least favourite tracks.

Using a questionnaire, the researchers assessed each participant’s lifetime noise exposure.

Musicians like to turn it up

They found that musicians turned their tunes up to an average of 80.61 dB, whereas non-musicians hit an average of 73.61 dB. This was a statistically significant difference.

Similarly, people listened to their favourite track louder than their least favourite: ​​80.17 dB versus 69.50 dB.

Why might this be? The authors offer a couple of interrelated explanations:

  1. Musicians have a stronger emotional response to music.
  2. Musicians have differences in brain anatomy in areas important for motor, sensory, and cognitive performances.

Earlier studies have shown that musicians have significantly stronger activation of some brain areas when listening to a rhythm, including the left inferior parietal lobe (IPL) and areas that are normally involved in language perception

Interestingly, the IPL plays an important role in sensory and emotional perception.

Conclusions: Not so convincing tbh

In answer to the scientists’ third question, “Does lifetime noise exposure correlate with preferred volume?” they found that “individuals with greater noise exposure preferred to listen to music at higher levels.” 

However, they also showed that musician participants were more likely to have had more lifetime noise exposure.

Although the study confirmed that all participants had hearing in a healthy range, the authors explain that they didn’t test hearing at particularly high frequencies. So there could have been some hearing loss in that range.

When you listen to music loud, high frequencies — think cymbals — are most uncomfortable, so I feel like this is a pretty big gap in the study. If you’re less sensitive to the horrible high bits, then you might be more inclined to pump the volume so you can enjoy the crushing, vibrating bass.

Importantly, the hair cells in your ear that detect high-pitched sounds are the most sensitive to breakage. So, musicians are most likely to have deficits in this range. 

Anyone who has stood near a drummer hammering a ride cymbal probably has some level of hearing loss in that range. Sorry about that.

This is quite a big problem with the study, I think. 

Careful, please

Compounding the issue, the authors also mention that only about half of the musicians wore ear protection when playing or listening to music. And those who did only used protection half of the time. 

That’s a lot of opportunity to damage your hearing. The musicians also had higher levels of lifetime noise exposure than non-musicians — weirdly, 7 of the 17 musicians used firearms, compared with 5 of the non-musicians. For American readers: Using firearms is pretty unusual in the UK.

In conclusion, taken together, all things considered, and to summarise, this study shows that musicians have probably damaged their hearing more than non-musicians. So, they crank it.

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