Music Performances and Loud Sound

Painful and Injurious Sound

First, I confess that my hands are not totally pure here. Although I don't turn sound on loud at home I also don't march right up to the venue owners or concert producers and complain about the volume when that volume is literaly injurious to me or to others. Worse, I've remained in concerts when I should just leave, or at minimum, move. And I haven't always worn ear protection, though why in the world I should have to do that I don't know.

A recent concert (June 2010 Quixotic) was simply an event which finally moved me to return to this old page, to update it for the first time in more than ten years and just to refresh myself on what I had written back then. Although QX are hardly known for being loud-noise performers, this concert had its loud areas directly in front of the speakers.

That set me thinking about performances in general in which sound volume is high. I realized that noise volume in general (any concerts, bands, bars) hardly ever gets reviewed in reviews, in particular the dangers of loud noise to audience, performers and other workers. I hadn't bothered about it in a decade even though plenty of performers should have been noted as loud.

Dr. Zhivegas - Disco, funk, soul and a touch of hip-hop. The 70's brought into the 90's. Shown here at Rodehouse Ruby's South, in Olathe, KS Feb 19, 1999. This picture may work better to illustrate the point that this is a wide problem as well as an old problem. I clearly remember the earplugs I had to wear to work anywhere near the stage. I was shooting this for Rodehouse Ruby's at the time and put this collage together when most of us were still using plailn old phone lines to connect to the web and so needed very small page sizes for the downloads.

Loud sound is a subject which deserves to be visited again, because the only real way to change this is for musicians overall to change it, rather than any single group. I doubt that audiences will make the changes but musicians have a direct interest in protecting their ears.

I think it is telling about ALL OF US, starting with me, in that I haven't updated this page in a decade. If you read the lower (older) part of the page you can see that I originally intended to carry a sound meter everywhere and include it in my descriptions of night spots. For a while I did but I seldom attend loud-music only concerts and most ballroom dance music is not going to make my ears ring. Somewhere I forgot the sound meter, and this page.

I, like too many others, let myself tolerate the loud sound and came home with painful ears which lasted for hours. That is a sure sign of injury. It wasn't the first time I was so dumb. I couldn't have been the only one. And I only saw two people, a couple in front of me, get up and leave. They did that somewhere in the first song. They were the smartest people in the room. Certainly smarter than me, since I too was in the direct path of the sound, just a bit farther back. And there in lies a major problem, all too many of us (yes, me too) are putting up with harmful levels of sound. Partly because each instance causes a small amount of damage which by itself is seldom ever notable and partly because we don't want to seem fussy and complaining or to be too un-cool.

After the end of these concerts, you can see people remove ear plugs they had worn for the concert. You really have to ask why ear plugs should be a part of anyone's personal concert-going dress code or why you should come to a music concert and wear sound blockers in your ears. I used to keep a couple of packages of ear plugs in my car's glove box. If people come to your concerts with ear plugs in hand to reduce the volume, maybe you should reduce the volume to start with. At least you know that your listeners will hear the sound directly rather than slightly muffled through common ear plugs (see below).

If you are deaf, hard of hearing or know friends or aquaintences who have lost hearing you realize this is serious. It is because the damage is hidden inside the ear that we disregard it. If instead your outer ear (the part we see) were to be chopped off by the sound, or if fingers or limbs were being gouged out by hits from the sound the bloody results would be obvious and horrifying.

The loss of hearing is just as ugly, but hidden. If we fully understood the impact we should all be horrified at any concert with such punishing levels of sound. I am catching small bits of that loss. My partner has moderate loss from performing in front of speakers. I know friends who have such loss including a lot of loss. It changes your life from what it should have been.

How Hearing Loss is Experienced

Hearing loss is not a loss of volume. Turning up the sound will not compensate. What happens is that you fail to hear parts of conversation and other things. My partner will hear certain kinds of almost silent sounds from the next room yet will lose scattered bits and pieces of regular talk or even loud-volumed television dialog. We have to have closed-captioning on in order to make certain of comprehension.

It is a very odd feeling. Part of it is simple comprehension. When pieces of the information are missing it is hard to put it all together. If we could translate it to printed text it might look something like this:

Conceptual example only - just to illustrate
Original:   Hearing loss is not a loss of volume. Turning up the sound will not compensate.
With Hearing Loss:   -e--g -oss is nt a loss of v---m. ---ning -p the sound will nt ---mpen --t.

Simple conversations become efforts to comprehend what the person in front of you is saying. Extra concentration helps but is still spotty. It makes you look stupid or dim because you seem to get some things and yet have to ask for other things to be repeated, sometimes repeatedly because those parts of speech which get dropped are dropped repeatedly.

Just clarifying someone's name takes more effort than usual. Part of that is because names are often arbitrary in pronounciation or spelling. Anytime someone speaks rapidly, pieces get missed. Raising the volume (typical of hearing aids) only partially helps. It can be embarrasing and confusing. Plus that, if you can't hear yourself accurately you can't talk as competently.

Only the latest hearing aids, which are digital and pre-programmed by computer, are able to amplify frequency ranges differently to equalize the output from the hearing aid. Turning up the volume across the board is only partially workable.

What really gets lost in the process is the ability to think, to concentrate. When pieces are missing from the whole, our brains are unable to use the remaining information to form cogent thoughts. You begin to think you are "losing it" because you are losing bits and pieces. People around you, to what extent they are aware of your difficulties in hearing, or even talking, tend to think you are not as bright. You know, that "dumb" perception. The experience from either side of such a conversation can be frustrating and just plain vexing.

This is similar to loss of close vision. I used to do very close detail work on model airplanes and ships and I used to draw with a pad right next to my head. No more.

Losing close focusing is not an experience of blurred vision. The blurring is not what you most notice but the effects of the blurring, lack of ability to make sense of things, is experienced more as a loss of concentration. By the time I was getting into my 40's I had to keep reading and other work farther and farther away to focus on it. On reading tasks and writing and programing I was having a hard time concentrating. My eyesight didn't worry me, my ability to think did. I don't remember exactly when and why I tried reading glasses but it wasn't because of concentration because I was totally surprised when, with reading glasses, suddenly the old comprehension and abiltiy to focus mentally returned.

To complete the circle, the same thing with hearing. It isn't the missing parts of speach you notice most, it is the ability to comprehend which forms the experience of difficult hearing.

You have to understand: Until you get there you really don't get it. And getting there is so gradual that you don't realize it until the changes are well under way or long gone already. That is why younger folks seldom understand the hazard of high volume to their hearing, or in terms of the experience, the hazard of high sound volume to their ability to comprehend almost everything.

Where damage happens

85 decibels seems to be the point where damage occurs. Many clubs and other venues run music at 100 decibels or more and your own listening on earphones can bring 115 decibels or worse to your ears.

Several factors combine to cause damage:

  1. Length of exposure - how long you are exposed
  2. Average level of exposure
  3. Peak levels during the exposure
  4. Individual susceptibility - something you don't know until after damage is done and which can vary according to individual conditions such as illness.

Decibels are measured in a logarithmic scale which means the intensity curves exponentially.


For all the noise you may hear in the audience, it can be surprisingly tough for the dancer to clearly hear the music they need to dance to. So speakers have to be arranged so that dancers can hear clearly. This adds yet another set of sounds.


Without a sound source aimed directly at them it is often hard for musicians in an amplified setting to hear their own playing clearly. The in-ear monitors and the headphones often offer sound protection.

But that brings up a moral question about performers wearing devices to protect them from sounds which are so loud but leaving the audience to their own devices. What kind of behavior is that?

It also brings up the "DUMB" question, such as why do so many of us remain in the middle of such high volumes (I put myself right at the front of the line on this question).

Sound Engineer

Okay, I will dump on sound engineers here, which they don't totally deserve. However, most sound engineers sit in some location in the middle or back of the room. So, they adjust the sound for that location, which means their location is probably the sweetest spot in the house in terms of good sound.

In my world every sound engineer would have to sit in the most exposed audience location and adjust sound levels for that spot. If they feel pain they can dial it down. The engineers should be the first to feel any pain rather than inflicting it on the audience.

Actually this is a type of lesson I learned from software programming. In the 1990s I was writing a program for graphics rendering. The newest version was coming along well and had all the bells and whistles customers has asked for. I was using the fastest machines we had at the time to do development. That was wrong. When we sent out the near-release beta customers complemented us on the features but said they wouldn't buy. It was taking nearly ten times as long to process. Just too painful. So, I got the crappiest computer that any customer could be expected to use and re-worked the file access libraries. I wanted to feel any pain first. If I could get that pain down I could get an upgraded product out the door. Finally the program was running nearly 20% faster, not 10 times slower. I could never have gotten there with the fast machine. Ever after I made a point of running the most limited machine I could expect customers to use when developing software.

The same thing should apply here. Put yourself in the customer (audience) position and tune the system for that. If you don't want to sit there you should never expect your customers to do so. Nor should you expect your fellow workers to have to work in the middle of that, at hazard to their hearing.


Audience should always bring ear plugs or isolation headphones or any other noise protector. Actually, everyone in the audience should stand up and leave if the volume is too darn loud. Of course none of us (that means me as well, shame on me) does this. I'm just saying "should." Maybe that would change things. But we are too worried about being the only complainers.

Then again, why are we going there? We really do need our ears, even those of use who are not musicians, singers or dancers.

Music for Ear Plugs - Huh??

Common industrial ear plugs may not work as well for music. They tend to muffle treble sounds. There are earplugs made specifically to reduce noise and still listen to a wide frequency range in the music (such as ER-15, ER-25 and certain types of vented plugs).

However, the special plugs are more expensive and also just not that available. So concert goers stocking up on earplugs may get plugs which cut down the treble range and muddle a number of sounds. I have to ask, why? What is the point. Holding down the volume allows your ears to hear and distinguish a full range of musical tones. Upping the volume reduces that abiity.

Would we put in earplugs before turning on your stereo to hear a CD? Nutty. So why do we accept any such need in a live venue?

Kansas City, MO - Ordinance

Excerpt from the ordinance - the section for places of entertainment

(8) Places of public entertainment.
a. Operating, playing or permitting the operation or playing of any radio, television, phonograph, drum, musical instrument, sound amplifier or similar device which produces, reproduces or amplifies sound at a sound level greater than 85 db(A) as read by the slow response on a sound level meter at any point that is normally occupied by a customer in any place of public entertainment with a seating capacity of less than 500 persons, unless a conspicuous and legible sign is located outside such place, near each public entrance, stating: "WARNING: SOUND LEVELS WITHIN MAY CAUSE PERMANENT HEARING IMPAIRMENT."
b. Operating, playing or permitting the operation or playing of any radio, television, phonograph, drum, musical instrument, sound amplifier or similar device which produces, reproduces or amplifies sound in any place of public entertainment which creates a noise disturbance across a residential real property boundary or within a noise-sensitive zone.
c. Operating, playing or permitting the operation or playing of any radio, television, phonograph, drum, musical instrument, sound amplifier or similar device at or within a place of entertainment situated within a commercial/light industrial district as defined in section 46-3 which produces, reproduces or amplifies sound in such a manner as to create a sound level which exceeds the equivalent A-weighted sound level (Leq) of 80 db(A) when measured at or within the real property boundary of the receiving realproperty.

My guess is that this is an ordinance which is seldom in play at entertainment venues. I am certain that the 85db level gets exceeded any number of times in any number of clubs. I suspect that most mixes are looking at a 95db play level or more.

And I certainly don't remember any warning signs outside or in and around any concerts stating: "WARNING: SOUND LEVELS WITHIN MAY CAUSE PERMANENT HEARING IMPAIRMENT." - anyone?


Noise-induced hearing loss ( NIHL ) is an increasingly prevalent disorder that results from exposure to high-intensity sound , especially over a long period of time. The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that exposure to 85 dB ( A ) of noise, known as an exposure action value , for more than eight hours per day can result in permanent hearing loss



Archive Section of this Page - written in the late 1990s

Sound and Hearing References

Our hearing is seldom thought about until we lose it - especially when we want to be hip.

Noise-Control Terms made easier

American Tinnitus Association - tinnitus is also known as "ringing in the ears"