For Those About to Rock: How Loud Is Too Loud?

Science, the apocalypse, and teaching / Thursday, December 21st, 2017

This post may contain unaffiliated ads. Please see our privacy policy for more information. 

It is the rare individual who does not enjoy music in one form or another. It’s safe to say that most of us not only enjoy music but especially enjoy it when we see our favorite artists perform live. So far as concerts go, we have done them all, large and small. We prefer the intimacy of small venues and the typically smaller price tag is befitting of the laid-off scientist.

Another advantage of small concert venues is the ease with which you can get up close and personal to the performing act. We have found ourselves against the stage at many concerts—in prime territory for fist bumps with the band and souvenir guitar picks. At the last two concerts, we were stage left, standing immediately in front of towering speakers. After the first, a terrific gig featuring CKY, my hearing was affected for 24 to 48 hours.  Then came Bobaflex, a metal band from West-by-God Virginia. The latter concert had basically the same effect, impairing my hearing for at least a day. This got me to thinking, albeit a bit belated, about if I was putting my hearing at risk through my love of such live performances.



What is a decibel?

Loudness, or intensity, is measured and reported according to decibels (dB). Keep in mind that because this is a logarithmic scale, small changes in dB value mean surprisingly big changes in the loudness. (Oh my, GOD he’s talking about MATH!) For example, going up 10 dB doubles loudness.


How loud is LOUD?

Live rock concerts are reported to have decibel ranges of 108 to 114 dB, depending upon where you are relative to the speakers and the type of venue (indoor versus outdoor). Those numbers are pretty meaningless without some comparisons. For starters, a vacuum cleaner rates at 70 dB, and is annoyingly loud to some people (which MUST be why my teenage son refuses to use one). To continue with our theme of chores, a gas lawn mower puts out 90 dB of noise, which is four times as loud as 70 dB.  If you’re into 80’s hair metal, that blow dryer is just as loud as a lawn mower. Standing in front of a car as it blows its horn equals 110 dB, which is the threshold of pain for most people; this is 16 times as loud as 70 dB.  At 120 dB, we have your choice of a chainsaw or thunder booming directly overhead. (You could even combine a chainsaw with heavy metal as with Jackyl’s classic, “The Lumberjack.”) So, a typical rock concert is basically somewhere between standing in front of a blaring car horn and being struck by lightning, and my girlfriend has done both!


How loud is TOO LOUD?

Sound waves can actually burst your eardrums. If you were to stand too close to a jet engine (150 dB), that would be the last thing you would ever hear (at least until your eardrums possibly healed).  While decibels are a major consideration, you must also consider duration. For example, while we’ve all likely been honked at while crossing the street or have been caught in a thunderstorm, the exposure was brief, whereas a concert may go on for hours.

Noise that damages our ears over time does so in a different manner than bursts of sound like gunshots or explosions. While a concert is not likely to rupture an eardrum or damage the tiny bones of the middle ear, it is known to cause the death of the delicate hair cells of the inner ear. Hair cell death can be subtle, and these cells do not regenerate. Thus, many concerts over time can lead to significant, irreversible hearing loss. This makes me sad.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have issued this guideline to avoid damage to your hearing: for every 3 dB over 85 dB, the safe amount of exposure is cut in half.

These recommendations have shocking consequences for our rock concert. With our aforementioned dB range of 108 to 114 dB, you could safely enjoy a concert for… 30 seconds up to a whopping 3 minutes! Welp,  I hope you enjoy that intro. Alternatively, you could listen to a single Volbeat guitar riff or a Black Stone Cherry drum solo, or most of the “nah-nah-nah-nah” portion of “Hey Jude,” which clocks in at 3:45 (yes, I measured).

How can I protect my hearing at concerts?

Your first option is to show up to the concert REALLY late. Maybe catch the last minute or two? But seriously, folks, you could always get seats in the rear or elect to not stand near the stage, but let’s face it… Closer is generally better! That leaves us with only one option, and that means wearing hearing protection.

Obviously, we are talking about subtle, in-the-ear options as opposed to over-the-ear protection like you’d use with a gas-powered weed whacker. Can you even imagine an audience of head-bangers wearing gigantic plastic ear muffs?!

Fortunately, a recent study from 2016 shows that ear plugs are effective in preventing temporary hearing loss associated with a concert. In this study, concert-goers attended an outdoor festival at 100 dB for 4.5 hours. The rubber earplugs (MTV Soundkeepr) reduced the intensity by 18 dB and significantly reduced both the occurrence and magnitude of temporary hearing loss, technically known as “temporary threshold shift.”

Now, if wearing ear plugs at a concert sounds dorky and makes you self-conscious, keep in mind that the audience is watching the band, not you. Besides, if someone is staring deep into your earholes at a concert, that’s just really weird and you shouldn’t care about their opinion anyways.

Final note

Ironically, being an avid concert enthusiast will eventually rob you of the ability to enjoy music. Hearing protection is a must, so add earplugs to your concert arsenal along with a spare bra to toss on stage.

Leave a Reply