Lifestyles: Pump up the volume: why we love loud music

‘Conditioning’ refers to the repeated pairing of loud music with having fun, so that loud music itself comes to elicit pleasure.

You walk into a club and the music hits you like a wall. You have to yell in your friend’s ear to make yourself heard; the intensity is almost painful, but it swallows you up and that feels good. When you step outside much later, your ears are ringing and sounds are muted. You fleetingly wonder if you’ve lost any hearing cells; then brush it off.

We all know loud noises can damage our hearing, especially over sustained periods – so why are so many of us drawn to loud music? Why is ultra-loud music so deeply embedded in our culture – from gigs and clubs to parties and festivals? Why does it hurt so good?

University of Auckland hearing experts Dr David Welch and Guy Fremaux investigated this question, and the answer is surprisingly complex.

“We were doing research into noise and hearing loss and I was baffled about why it was that people didn’t seem to care much about sounds that we knew would damage their sense of hearing,” Dr Welch, Head of the Audiology Section in the University’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, says. “One factor had to be that people are used to loud sound because they positively like loud music, they associate it with fun.”

In an exploratory study, the researchers interviewed Auckland night club staff and regular clubbers, which confirmed and extended a theory they were developing.

Dubbed CAALM (Conditioning, Adaptation, Acculturation to Loud Music), their theoretical model teases out mutually reinforcing elements.

‘Conditioning’ refers to the repeated pairing of loud music with having fun, so that loud music itself comes to elicit pleasure. The process of ‘adaptation’ is automatic and preconscious: when we enter a loud environment, we can initially feel shocked by the sound, but gradually that passes as our auditory systems adapts, and we learn to tolerate the sound.

This might also explain the researchers’ finding that the volume creeps up across the night in night clubs, peaking at around 97 decibels at midnight and staying there. Dr Welch: “We think probably what’s going on is the staff’s ears are adapting so they’re turning the volume up, and this continues through the night.”

‘Acculturation’ refers to our collective expectation of loud music at clubs, parties and similar events. Not everyone wants or likes this this, but it tends to happen, and people regard it as normal in Western culture.

CAALM also identifies four elements of loud music that can make it feel good in its own right; first, on a physiological level, music arouses and excites us, directly tapping into the deeper, animal parts of our natures that evolved for survival.

“Our auditory systems evolved to warn us about our environments and our ears are deeply connected to the parts of the brain that evoke arousal (the hypothalamus), wakefulness (the reticular activating system), and that mediate emotions (the amygdala),” Welch says.

“The loudness of music activates systems that kept our ancestors ahead of the predators and that influence is very strong: we feel thrilled; we want to move and dance; we feel alive!”

On a social level, music can bring us together in two ways: through the fellowship of a shared, heightened experience; and through shattering barriers of personal space as we lean in for those shouted, yet private, conversations. “That physical proximity you have to adopt is a way of breaking down the social conventions about personal space, and depending on who the person is, we quite like that.”

Conversely, loud sound can also offer refuge from the world and ourselves, cocooning us, drowning out all other sounds and even our own thoughts. “In the pounding of loud music, our worries and anxieties are masked, and the mind is empty and calm,” Dr Welch says. “And it may go beyond this, because music brings its own meaning, generating images and concepts in our mind: it can transport us to a new, carefree place.”

Finally, some people feel that loud music offers them a stronger identity, particularly one of personal power and toughness. Dr Welch: “Think of hard rock and rap music; the anger and power in heavy metal.”

An explanation may reside in loud music’s physiological arousal. “Loud, angry music may activate our fear response, which we then control almost instantaneously. We end up feeling like we do after controlling fear in any situation: brave and invulnerable.”

Another finding in this and other research is that some people going to clubs don’t necessarily want loud music, they just want to go clubbing, but they accept the loudness of the music as a part of the experience.

In a follow-up study, Dr Welch, Ellen Ma, and Ravi Reddy trained Auckland night club staff how to protect themselves against the hearing loss from long-term exposure to loud music. “We thought, these are people who set the sound levels for others, who create the expectations: if we could influence them maybe that would reduce loudness expectations.”

The training went well: the staff’s attitudes changed, and the culture within the nightclub seemed to be influenced, but the nightclub workers did not report a change in their own behaviour. Dr Welch: “It’s one of those things that’s so embedded in our wider culture that people accept the loudness, and change will have to happen at many levels.”

Dr Welch would like to see increased understanding about loud music. “Like a lot of things that we enjoy, too much is potentially dangerous, and we need to learn to balance our exposure. Fun is important, but you can hurt yourself and others if you listen too loud for too long.”

His best advice is to find a balance: pack ear plugs when you’re heading out so you can control your own exposure, and avoid loud music if you have had other loud noise exposure that day – find ways to give your ears a break.