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Year : 2002  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 16  |  Page : 47--55

Is electronically amplified music too loud? what do young people think?

Vlasta Mercier1, Beat W Hohmann2,  
1 Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (BAG), Bern, Switzerland
2 Swiss National Accident Insurance Organisation (Suva),Lucerne, Switzerland

Correspondence Address:
Vlasta Mercier
Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (BAG), CH-3003 Bern


Listening to loud music has been associated, in a number of studies, with hearing loss and tinnitus among young people. However an unanswered question is whether or not these same young people want to have their music so loud. In our study 533 young men and 167 young women, in the age group 16 to 25, who were attending a vocational training centre, responded to a questionnaire and volunteered to have their hearing assessed. The questionnaire sought information on listening habits, on the kinds of events attended, on whether the music at these events was too loud or not, and if the respondents considered their hearing had been impaired. Analysis of this data indicated that 79% of the subjects attend discotheques, 52% pop and rock concerts, and 35% techno parties (e.g. raves). A significant number considered the music at these venues was too loud. Some 42% considered this was the case at discos, 35% thought pop and rock concerts too loud, and 39% held a similar view of techno parties. Conversely, fewer than 3% considered sound levels at these events to be too low. On the basis of the response to the questionnaire we estimate that over half the respondents (56.6%) have a sound exposure (L eq ) from music of over 87 dB(A). It is not surprising therefore that 71% reported that they had suffered tinnitus following attendance at a music event. The hearing capacity of the sample was measured by audiometry. These measurements detected hearing loss in 11% of the 700 individuals tested. However it was not possible to show that the risk of hearing loss increased with increasing exposure to loud music. We conclude that young people neither demand nor require the excessive sound levels typical of most music events.

How to cite this article:
Mercier V, Hohmann BW. Is electronically amplified music too loud? what do young people think?.Noise Health 2002;4:47-55

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Mercier V, Hohmann BW. Is electronically amplified music too loud? what do young people think?. Noise Health [serial online] 2002 [cited 2022 May 19 ];4:47-55
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One of the favourite leisure time activities of teenagers and young adults is listening to music be it in large groups at pop and rock concerts, techno parties (e.g. raves), discotheques, or individually from home or car stereos, portable cassettes or a personal CD-player (PCP). The high sound level exposures that result from these activities are considerable. In a previous study we found (Mercier et al 1998) that around 60% of young people were exposed to an A-weighted equivalent sound pressure level L eq in excess of the 85 dB value which is fixed as the sound exposure limit at work.

Numerous studies have reported the impact of the music-listening habits of teenagers and young people on their hearing ability. Excessive exposure to loud music has been correlated to an increased risk of hearing loss and/or tinnitus by several workers (Babisch et al 1988, Mercier et al1998, Meyer-Bisch 1996, Fearn 1976, Struwe et al 1996, Ising et al 1997). These findings were further supported in a recent review by Zenner et al (1999). However the issue is still controversial. Neither Hoffman et al (1997), Axelsson (1996), Meecham and Hume (2001), nor Passchier-Vermeer (1999) found an association between sound exposure in discos, nightclubs, or pop and rock concerts and hearing impairment. Despite the lack of clear scientific evidence Switzerland, Italy, Austria and France have all introduced sound level limits for discotheques and concerts. In Germany an expert group (Zenner et al 1999) has also proposed ( in the Norm DIN 19905/5) a limit to the permissible sound level in discotheques. In Switzerland, a regulation implying sound level limits of 100 dB(A) at concerts and 93 dB(A) in discotheques was enforced in 1996.

Some music promoters contend that the public demand high sound levels and contest these limits. The views of young people on this subject are less clear. Schuschke et al (1994) found that while 60% of teenagers between 14 and 18 years old found the sound levels in discos too high, about 80% judged the noise level at concerts to be normal. A study, done by Babisch (2000) on the acceptance of sound level reductions in discotheques showed that the highest acceptance was achieved with music sound levels of 94 dB(A). According to this study, a reduction in sound levels from above 100 dB(A) to around 95 dB(A) would neither reduce the enjoyment of a discotheque nor its attendance. The survey "Klangalltag-Alltagsklang" on the appreciation of noise and sound levels by the Swiss population undertaken by Lorenz (2000) included an evaluation of sound levels at public music events such as pop and rock concerts, discotheques, bars and cinemas. Around 60% of the young people questioned found the sound level in discotheques and concerts too high, and even more (85 %) considered the sound at techno parties too loud. The aim of the present study was threefold: to see whether young people really demand the high sound levels that characterise musical events; to obtain more information on their music listening habits; and to assess possible hearing impairment.


Design of the Study

Seven hundred young people (533 male, 167 female) attending a vocational training school received a questionnaire about their possible hearing impairment, their listening habits and exposure to loud music, and their opinion on the sound levels they experienced in discotheques, at concerts and at techno parties. The students, who were aged between 16 and 25 (average age 17.3), were undertaking apprenticeships in 21 different trades such as locksmith, baker, hairdresser, fitter, plumber among others. Some 13 % were exposed in their trade to an equivalent sound level L eq of more than 85 dB (A). All of those participating in the survey had to undergo a hearing test as well as a listening test (measurements of the sound levels the subjects employed on their own PCPs).

While playing a specially compiled CD which featured music of their choice, each individual was asked to adjust the volume in the Sennheiser HD 25-1 headphones to the preferred level. The headphone output of the Sony CDP-L3 CD player was capable of generating sound levels of over 105 dB(A) in the headphones without audible distortion. The equivalent sound pressure level in the headphones was measured over a 30 second period using a modified Aclan IdB integrating sound level indicator coupled electrically to the headphone output of the CD player. The sensitivity of the sound level meter had been earlier calibrated in the laboratory with a Bruel & Kjaer 4128 head and torso simulator (HATS) equipped with couplers and soft pinnae according to IEC 711. For the compensation of the frontal free field response of the HATS (as specified by the manufacturer), a Behringer Ultracurve digital equaliser was used.

For discotheques, an average sound level of 93 dB(A) was considered typical, as this is the upper sound level limit fixed in the Swiss "Noise and Laser Ordinance". For techno parties and live concerts, 100 dB(A) was chosen for the same reason.

The subjects' exposures to loud music on a weekly basis over a period of five years were obtained from the questionnaires. The weekly equivalent sound level L eq as well as the equivalent sound level over the previous five years (L eq(5y) ) were calculated for each subject based on each individual's selected sound level in the CD player headphones test (listening test), while the sound levels for public music events were estimated as described above.

As the number of subjects made conventional manual audiometry impractical, an automated hearing test with 70 sinusoidal test tones between 500 and 12,000 Hz recorded on a CD-R was used. The sound level inside the sound-proof Peltor HAT-7A headphones had been calibrated on a Bruel & Kjaer 4153 coupler. The subjects were required to write down the number of test tones heard at each frequency.


Hearing impairment

Of the 700 young people questioned 94% considered their hearing to be normal while 6% felt they suffered from some hearing loss. In fact the hearing test showed that 11.1% (CI 9.0% - 13.8%) suffered from a hearing loss of more than 15 dB in one or both ears in the frequency range of 3 to 6 kHz. Only around 40% of the self­reported hearing loss was confirmed by the hearing test. More males suffer from hearing loss (12.0%, CI 9.4% - 15.1%) than do females (8.4%; CI 4.7% -13.7%), but the difference is not significant. An estimated 71.6 % (CI 68.0% - 74.9%) of those questioned indicated that they had experienced post exposure tinnitus (PET). Here, no differences were observed between the sexes. In 90.8% (CI 87.9% - 93.1%) of the cases the PET did not last more than one day. However in 2.4% (CI 1.3% - 4.3%) of the cases the PET had become permanent.

Prevalence of music-induced hearing impairment in young people in Switzerland

In Switzerland 11.6% of the population or 832,000 people are aged between 16 and 25. From the results of this study, it is estimated that 596,000 (71.6%) may suffer from PET at some time and that for 14,300 of them the tinnitus becomes permanent. The 95% confidence intervals for these numbers are 566,000 to 623,000 for occasional PET and 7,700 to 25,600 for permanent impairment. Some 11.1% (CI 9.0% - 13.8%) were found to have a hearing loss of at least 15 dB which suggests that 74,880 to 114,800 of the young Swiss aged between 16 and 25 could be experiencing a possible hearing loss due to listening to music.

Music-listening habits and sound exposure PCP

Around 66% (male 68%, female 60%) listen regularly to the PCP. [Table 1] indicates the number of hours per week and how long the students have been listening to PCPs. On average they listen at sound levels of 88.8 +/­11.4 dB (A) ranging from a minimum of 47 dB (A) to a maximum of 111dB(A). Women prefer significantly lower sound levels (82 +/- 12 dB) than do men (91 +/- 10 dB), to a p-value less than 0.001.

On average the subjects listen to PCPs for around 3 hours per week and have been using PCPs for about 3 years.

We estimated that 2.4% of women and 22% of men experienced the equivalent sound level exposure L eq of more than 87 dB. When the sound level exposure was calculated over the previous 5 years L eq(5y) it was estimated that 1.8 % of the women and 16.7 % of the men in our test group can be classified as over exposed due to listening to music with PCPs [Figure 1],[Figure 2].


Around 79 % attend regularly discotheques. [Table 2] indicates how many times per week young people go to discotheques and for how long. There were no differences observed

between the sexes. Discotheques are equally popular with men and women.

Most people spend at least 4 hours in a discotheque, which means that around a quarter of the subjects spend 8 hours or more per week in a discotheque. On average they have been going to discotheques for 2.3 years. The equivalent sound level exposure was 82.4 +/- 7.3 dB (A) taking into account the sound level limit of 93 dB (A) fixed in the Swiss Ordinance.

Some 8.4% of females and 10.1% of males were exposed to the equivalent sound level L eq of more than 87 dB. When sound level exposure was calculated over a five year period (L eq(5y) ) we concluded that 3% of both females and males can be considered over exposed to sound levels in discos ( see [Figure 1][Figure 2]).

Rock and pop concerts and techno parties

Around 52.6% of our study group went regularly to rock and pop concerts while some 35.6% attended techno parties. Significantly more women then men go to concerts (64.1 % versus 49.0%). The opposite is the case with techno parties (25,7 % females to 38.6 % males). The p­value is less than 0.01 in both cases.

[Table 3] indicates the monthly attendance at these musical events and the number of years people have been going.

On average, the young people questioned have been spending 6.5 hours per month at a concert or techno party for the last two years. One third of the subjects attended these musical events at least twice a month.

The average equivalent sound level exposure of the group due to concerts and techno parties was 81.5 +/- 10.1 dB (A).

The equivalent sound level L eq of more than 87 dB was experienced by 22.9 % of the subjects (18.6% females and 24.2% males). When the sound level exposure was calculated over the previous 5 years (L eq(5y) ) 13.2% females and 11.8% males were considered over exposed to sound levels at concerts and techno parties (see [Figure 1],[Figure 2]).

Comparison between the exposure due to the different sources

The proportion of the subjects having a sound exposure L eq of more than 87 dB (A) is shown in [Figure 1].

From [Figure 1] it can be seen that 56.6% (CI 52.8%-60.3%) of the 700 questioned were exposed to equivalent sound levels of more than 87dB(A) while as many as 31.6% (CI 28.2%­35.2%) of the subjects were exposed to an L eq of over 90 dB(A).

When exposure over a five year period was considered the proportion of the subjects who were exposed to an equivalent sound pressure level of more than 87 dB(A) the L eq (5 y ) from the different sources is shown in [Figure 2].

[Figure 2] shows that 34.3% (CI 30.8%-38.0%) of the 700 questioned were exposed to equivalent sound levels, calculated over the last 5 years, of more than 87dB(A) while 17.7% (CI 15.0%­20.8%) of the group was exposed to an L eq(5y) above 90 dB(A). However the data show that the exposure of women is usually less than that of men.

Relationships between exposure to music sound level of more then 87 dB (A) and hearing loss

Chi squared trend association analysis and relative risk calculations were applied to the data to identify any statistically significant relationship between the observed hearing loss and the equivalent sound level exposure. In this analysis we stratified the exposure into three bands, namely: L eq eq = 87.1- 90.0 dB (A) ; and L eq > 90.0 dB (A).

We could find no association between the incidence of hearing loss or PET and the sound level exposure. The relative risk of incidence of hearing loss or PET in the population exposed to an L eq > 87 dB (A) or an L eq(5y) > 87 dB (A) was not significantly higher than that occurring among the unexposed subjects (RR = 1.05(CI 0.69-1.60), RR = 1.06(CI 0.97-1.17), RR = 0.96(CI 0.61-1.49), RR = 1.01(CI 0.92-1.11)), respectively.

The appreciation of sound level at music events

[Figure 3] shows how the young people in our study judged the sound levels at music events.

There is a significant divergence of view between men and women. Fewer men (39.2%) than women (50.9%) found the sound level in discotheques too high (p-value less than 0.01). Similarly 31.3% of men compared with 46.1% of women judged concerts too loud (p-value less than 0.01). However opinions concerning techno parties were almost independent of sex with 38.5% of men and 40.7% of women judging sound levels too high.

We noticed that there was a high percentage of people expressing no opinion on sound levels and so we decided to examine whether the reason for this was that those with "no opinion" simply didn't attend these events. [Figure 4] shows the views of the group when those who don't attend the particular events are excluded.

As shown in [Figure 4] the percentage of the young people with "no opinion" attending the different musical events drops dramatically when the views of those who don't attend such events are excluded. We now find that 50.4% of those attending judged the sound level in discotheques to be just right while 43.3% still found sound levels too high. In the case of live concerts as many visitors found the sound level satisfactory as found it too high (47.8% and 46.5% respectively). However more people (52.2%) considered the sound levels at techno parties excessive than thought them satisfactory (39.4%). Fewer than 5% expressed a preference for higher sound levels at any of the events.

A comparison of the attitudes of men and women to sound levels at events is illustrated in [Figure 5].

From [Figure 5] it can be seen that more women than men find the sound level at all events too high.


The results of our study show clearly that young people spend a great deal of time listening to music with PCPs, at pop and rock concerts, and at discotheques and confirms earlier studies by Schuschke et al (1994), Mercier et al (1998), Struwe et al (1996) and Becher et al (1996). These leisure activities greatly increase the sound level exposure of young people. We found that 56.6% of our subjects (60.4% of males, 44.3% of females) were exposed to equivalent sound pressure levels of more than 87 dB (A) while some 31.5% were exposed to sound levels of more than 90 dB(A). It is assumed that this increased exposure to noise results in deteriorating hearing. The risk calculation is based mainly on the model presented in ISO 1999, which gives a relationship for occupational noise-induced hearing loss. According to ISO 1999 the equivalent sound pressure levels observed present an increased risk of hearing loss. While we found that 11.1% of the subjects in our study had a hearing loss of at least 15 dB we could not find any association with any kind of exposure to loud music.

Hoffmann et al (1997) had a similar finding. Despite the fact that they found only 40% of the young men tested had good hearing ( defined as having a hearing loss of less than 20 dB in both ears at all frequencies) they did not find any association between music exposure from discotheques and hearing loss. These findings are in disagreement with our previous study (Mercier et al 1998), where we found a significantly increased risk of hearing loss associated with music exposure (RR = 1.5). This might be due to differences between the sample groups tested. In the present study the students were younger, the sample contained more women (24% compared to 13%), and the social profile of the students could be different. According to Ising et al (1997) subjects who attend discotheques every week showed a 30% increase in hearing loss compared to those who seldom went. It was also found that subjects with a lower level of education showed a relative risk of 1.5. Struwe et al (1996) also reported more intensive exposure to music among young people with less education. Borchgrevink (1993) found that 30% of 18 year old Norwegian males being evaluated prior to military service had a hearing loss of 20 dB or more. The authors think that this might be due to music-induced hearing loss. This incidence of hearing deficiency among young Norwegian males was double in the 1980s but declined in the 1990s. However Axelsson et al (1994) could not confirm any increasing prevalence of hearing loss among 18 year old Swedish males. It seems to us that the issue is still highly controversial. In a follow-up study on the hearing of pop and rock musicians, Axelsson et al (1995) found, surprisingly, that even after performing for 26 years their hearing was well­preserved. He had no explanation for the tolerance of the musicians to the high sound levels they experienced and thought that there might be some protective effect generated by the positive attitude of the musicians toward their performances. It may be possible that music is less harmful than noise of equal sound level.

We found that more than 70% of our subjects suffered from post exposure tinnitus (PET). In around 90% of the cases PET did not last for more than one day. However in more than 2% of cases the tinnitus became permanent. We confirmed the findings of our previous study where we found very similar values (Mercier et al 1998). Struwe et al (1996) also reported that two-thirds or more of 1800 young people questioned suffered from PET. Meecham and Hume (2001) found a significant association between the attendance at noisy nightclubs and the duration of PET. Almost half the musicians and participants reported tinnitus according to Axelsson (1996). Babisch (1988) was also able to show a significant association between tinnitus and the frequency of discotheque attendance, but he found only a weak association between tinnitus and hearing loss.

Whereas it has yet to be proved that tinnitus is related to hearing loss, it is suggested that repeated PET might be an early indicator of permanent hearing damage.

The fact that there is strong evidence of tinnitus resulting from exposure to high sound levels in discotheques, nightclubs, and at pop and rock concerts justifies the regulation of sound levels in these locations by public health authorities. In Switzerland an Ordinance on Protection of Persons Attending Organised Events Against Health Hazards Resulting from Noise and Laser Beams (the Noise and Laser Ordinance) which came into force on 1st April 1996 sets out the sound emission limits in such a way that the mean sound immission level caused by the event should not exceed an L eq of 93 dB(A) when measured over a period of one hour. If this limit value leads to an unacceptable restriction of a particular musical event, an exemption may be granted by the competent authority. Then the sound level is limited to an L eq of 100 dB(A).

These exemptions apply mostly to open air and live concerts, techno parties and festivals. The maximum sound level of 100 dB during 'exempted' events is generally observed by the event organisers. This is, unfortunately, not the case for the 'un-exempted' event. Even now more than 30% of the discotheques ignore the sound limit values of 93 dB. The excuses given are based on the claim that the public demand the high sound levels. In our study we have clearly shown that about half of those attending discotheques find the music sound level too high whereas fewer than 3 % find the sound level too low. The balance of 40 to 50% appear happy with the sound levels they find. We obtained very similar opinions with 'exempted' events. Here around 50% of the people attending concerts and techno parties expressed a preference for lower sound levels at these events. In particular some 60% of women find the sound levels at concerts and techno parties too high. The question remains why nightclub owners, DJ's and concert organisers act against their own interest when they risk losing participants and especially young women, because of high sound levels.[18]


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