‘I’m an Audiologist, and Yes, Listening to Music Too Loudly Is Probably Damaging Your Hearing’

Photo: Stocksy/Ivan Gener
Listening to music feels good. Listening to loud music feels even better. This habit—while invigorating in the moment—may be costing you more than the price of your earbuds, though. Case in point: a recent study published in BMJ Global Health found that approximately one billion young people are in danger of hearing loss from unsafe listening practices—like blasting music on their headphones.

Read on to learn what a leading audiologist has to say about why loud music can cause hearing loss, plus her tips for preventing it.

Why does listening to loud music feel so good? 

Ever notice how pumping up the volume turns listening to music or gaming into a sensory experience? There’s a biological reason why your body and brain love music, especially when it gets loud.

Experts In This Article

Your inner ear contains a stimulus-gathering organ, called the sacculus. The sacculus has a direct line to the part of the brain that registers pleasure. When you turn up the volume on music, your brain responds by releasing feel-good hormones, called endorphins.

Endorphins stimulate the brain’s opioid system, which furthers this feel-good rush by producing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that generates pleasure, motivation, and satisfaction.

“It really boils down to unsafe listening habits by people who go to loud concerts, sporting events and, of course, use headphones."—Kathleen Wallace, AuD

Why can loud music cause hearing loss?

It may feel good when the bass is bumping, but listening to loud music, either on devices or in person, is potentially doing permanent damage to the inner structures of your ear.

“The main hearing organ is the cochlea. When sound waves enter the ear canal, the vibrations they cause are captured by sensory hair cells in the cochlea. The hair cells turn these vibrations into electrical signals which are sent to the brain through the auditory nerve. If the hair cells get vibrated too much, they lose their responsiveness and die. This reduces your response to auditory stimuli, causing hearing loss,” explains Kathleen Wallace, AuD, an audiologist and head of provider education at Tuned.

According to Dr. Wallace, the damage is irreversible. She also cautions that music is not the only auditory stimulus to blame. Crowd noise at stadiums and in places like bars can also cause hearing loss.

“It really boils down to self-inflicted, unsafe listening habits by younger people who go to loud concerts, sporting events and, of course, use headphones. Audiologists are seeing a lot of noise-induced, permanent hearing loss in young people caused by these habits,” she says.

Noise-induced damage can also include tinnitus, a type of phantom sound only you can hear. Some people liken tinnitus to ringing in the ears. Others experience hissing, clicking, and other sounds. (And keep in mind, tinnitus can be from certain health conditions, too. For example, ringing in ears and high blood pressure are often related.)

“The leading theory with tinnitus is that it’s generated by the brain. Your brain expects to get messaging in the form of sound from your ears. Hearing loss, including mild hearing loss, reduces this messaging. In response, the brain generates its own signal to process in the form of sound that only you can hear,” explains Dr. Wallace.

Okay, so how loud is too loud?

So we know that loud music can cause hearing loss, but what is the limit? Here's what to know: Cochlear hair cells can be damaged by loud noise and music, or by music played at moderate to high volumes over long periods of time. Here are a few scenarios to keep in mind when it comes to loud noises that can damage your hearing.

  • Concerts and club music are usually played at around 90 decibels (dBs). That noise level can cause damage to your hearing after about an hour of listening.
  • Really loud noises, like ambulance sirens or firecrackers, log in at around 120 dBs. This noise level can cause damage within 15 minutes or less.
  • Moderate listening can also have a negative impact, especially if you’re using headphones. Media and phone calls at 70 to 90 dBs can hurt your ears if you’re listening nonstop for several hours.

4 tips for listening to music safely

Listening to music and attending noisy, fun events adds joy to life. And the goal isn’t for you to have less joy. But, like lots of fun things, setting limits can actually be a form of self-care. To protect your hearing, Dr. Wallace recommends these safeguards:

  1. Follow the safety warnings on devices: Some media playback devices, including phones and laptops manufactured in Europe, have pop-up warnings about hearing loss that come on when the volume goes above 85 dBs in headphones. These warnings, set by the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization, are designed to reduce hearing loss. You may be on the other side of the pond, but consider heeding those warnings anyway, rather than disabling them.
  2. Protect your ears at work as well as at play: Ear damage can happen on the job as well as at a concert venue. If you work in a noisy environment (think nightclub, construction site, or the New York Stock Exchange trading floor), wear protective ear gear. Not sure how loud is too loud? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says if you have to shout to be heard three feet away, the noise level is probably over 85 dB and unsafe for ears.
  3. Think about duration as well as volume: Dr. Wallace recommends keeping the frequency and duration of noise in mind, as well as the volume level. “If you’re taking calls on your headphones all day long, even at a moderate sound level, you may be doing damage to your hearing,” she says. OSHA recommends that noise levels at work be reduced if they average 85 dB or more over an eight-hour period. However, that equation is based on external noise, not headphone use. “If you have earbuds in your ears all day, your ears need a break. Silence gives them time to recover,” Dr. Wallace says.
  4. Be proactive about your protecting your hearing: If you know you’re going to be in a potentially noisy place, pack ear protection gear or noise-canceling headphones. Not only will you be more comfortable, but you’ll also be protecting your precious hearing for decades to come.

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