As a parent, I used to warn my kids about the dangers of listening to loud rock music and how it could potentially harm their hearing. However, as a scientist, I discovered that my warnings might have been based on flimsy evidence.
Initially, I disregarded studies that compared hearing loss in people who regularly attended rock concerts to those who didn’t listen to this kind of loud music. Surprisingly, the results showed that there was only a minor hearing loss of about 2-3 decibels, despite the sound levels at rock concerts being well over a hundred decibels. In comparison, factory workers exposed to similar levels of sound had significant hearing damage.
The reason for this is that our ears are not always able to register very short-duration sound peaks. The brain takes some time to process the sound before it decides what to receive. As a result, short peaks of sound may pass through the ear without activating the normal protective mechanism.
At sound levels above eighty decibels, the tiny bones that transmit vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear become stiffer and transmit sound less effectively. What damages our hearing is not the average sound but the peaks.
Factory noise has a lot of peaks that, although not registered by the brain, can damage hearing by destroying hair cells in the cochlea. Since the sound at rock concerts comes through loudspeakers, the short sound peaks are limited.
So, the next time you or your kids attend a rock concert, you can rest easy knowing that, despite the loud noise, it is unlikely to cause any serious hearing damage. However, it is still important to be mindful of sound levels and take precautions to protect your hearing when exposed to loud noises for prolonged periods.