Electronic Dance Music is arguably the fastest growing trend in popular music right now, and it seems to be doing nothing but getting bigger. Increasingly more artists from other genres are releasing songs with electronic influences and DJ cameos, and these songs are roaring right up the charts. This stuff is cranking loud in headphones across America and infecting concert venue bills faster than you can say “Raise Your Weapon.” The popularity of EDM is easy to understand. It’s fun. And people love to dance. But there is a very serious downside to the trend, growing more dangerous as the music spreads.
The fact is that, as EDM reaches more ears, we may need to begin weaning ourselves off its signature heavy bass lines and sweeping wobbles with a quickness. Studies have shown that extended exposure to excessively loud music repeated over several occurrences can cause permanent hearing damage. Of course, this has been generally known since Beethoven began losing his hearing around 1796 (he was cranking that piano through some serious stacks), but it seems that there is a growing concern that EDM may be exacerbating the problem.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration claims that 90 decibels (dB), about the volume of a noisy office, is the average sound intensity that a human can withstand for eight hours without any hearing damage. Anything past this mark and tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, becomes a distinct possibility. Tinnitus is an early symptom of hearing impairment, removing the normal masking effect of low-level noise causing you to hear all the muscle movement, blood flow, and eardrum vibration inside your own head. At any given EDM show, you can expect to absorb over 110dB for several hours, which is about the equivalent of putting your ear up to a chainsaw all night. This is a rather significant difference, considering that every increase of 10dB translates to about doubling the volume output, according to Hearing Aid Know. Of course, EDM shows weren’t the first to break the 100dB barrier – any metal fan could tell you that…if they could hear the question, of course. But it seems that electronic dance music has one distinct factor that may be on its way to filling the future with hearing-impaired, former EDM enthusiasts.
Cue the bass drop. Heavy bass is the culprit that will ultimately leave you with nothing but the sound of echo-y, high-pitched buzzing in your ears for the rest of your life. The argument is that while your ears are very sensitive to mid-range and high-register frequencies, they cannot detect the damage of lower sound to the same intensity that they can for these other sounds. Basically, bass frequencies don’t cause the same level of pain as higher-pitched sounds do. This means that when you’re headbanging to a bass-y breakdown at a Deadmau5 show, or cranking some Bassnectar up in your Monster Beats, you’re doing serious damage to your ears without even realizing it. It’s highly debated as to whether low frequency sounds actually do more or less damage than higher frequencies, but it is agreed upon that low register sounds are less detectable by the pain sensors in our hearing. So when we say it might be time to ‘drop the bass,’ we aren’t about to slam some 200hz frequencies through your speakers.
Why don’t we just turn down the volume? Yeah, we laughed too. For most of us, turning down the volume just isn’t an option in most cases. It’s a well-known fact that music just sounds better when it’s louder. If you’re not convinced, here’s why. It’s mostly because, as music gets louder, the extreme frequencies become more audible, allowing you to hear a fuller sound with the support of the highest and lowest resonant frequencies and all their harmonics compounding on each other. This is why we’d rather crank up the volume knob and melt into the engulfing awesomeness of a hardcore Skrillex bass drop than twist back to the dusty side of the dial. However, we may not have a choice for much longer.
The European Union has already implemented a volume cap for personal mp3 players, restricting maximum output for new devices to 85dB in 2013. While most mp3 players reach levels between 100-120dB, this is a serious drop, again considering that every 10dB down is half the original volume. As expected, many oppose the new law, including 34% of those surveyed by Action On Hearing Loss who said they would choose to override it. Some have already even developed tricks to remove the cap on Apple devices. This rebellious backlash has yet to surface in the US, mostly because the issue isn’t prevalent enough to inspire any sort of national legislation in the first place. Then again, EDM has been popular in Europe for much longer than in the States, so maybe we just need to wait a few more years and take action when all the 25-30-year-olds have the same hearing capacity as most 85-90-year-olds.
But do we have to completely destroy all dubstep, house, electronica, and everything that emits a sound lower than 2500hz to ensure the safety of our hearing in the future? Not quite. As with most controversial commodities, wobbly bass lines are perfectly harmless in moderation. Plus, there’s no way that devoted EDM fans, or much of popular music, for that matter, will allow this electronic craze to go down without a fight. It’s ultimately left to personal responsibility to listen at safe volumes, and further education on the risks of hearing damage will have to be regulation enough for users not to blow out their eardrums.
Here’s a playlist of some popular EDM tracks along with some of the dirtiest bass drops we could get our hands on, just to give you an idea of what can potentially ruin your hearing forever. Whether you’re a seasoned EDM veteran or just testing the waters, sit back, and let yourself be swallowed up by some gnarly dance jams. As always, however, please enjoy responsibly.