Devices play music that's not all sweet

Listening to loud MP3s extensively may harm hearing
By: Michelle Miller, Journal Features Editor
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You're likely to find 14-year-old Brianna Sweet listening to Danity Kane, Ashlee Simpson or Beyoncé on her iPod nano at school, during lunch and when she's doing chores after school. "It helps get the cleaning done faster," said Sweet, a freshman at Placer High School. "But if someone wants to talk to me, they have to come tap me on the shoulder to get my attention." Portable music devices have become a way to block out the rest of the world by cranking up your favorite songs. But those little earbuds that seem to be sprouting out of everyone's ears these days may be leading to hearing loss if used improperly. Hearing experts at the Mayo Clinic worry that hearing loss may become as prevalent as iPods in teenagers' pockets because these music devices expose people to loud volumes for long periods of time. The high sound quality in these players also allows people to turn them up louder without losing the crystal-clear sound. Most portable music devices can produce sounds up to 120 decibels - louder than a lawnmower, according to the Mayo Clinic. Brianna showed that she puts her volume level at around 50 percent when listening to her iPod. The Mayo Clinic recommends not going above 60 percent of your music player's maximum volume. Newer iPods also have a "volume limit" feature that allows you to control your decibel levels. But it's all about how you use the ear phones, said Dr. Mark Vaughan, a general practitioner with Auburn Medical Group. The volume, proximity to your ear canal and duration of listening all affect the extent of hearing damage. "When you go into the ear canal, the closer you are the louder it sounds. More energy is hitting the ear drum," he said. But Vaughan said there is no special damage that could be done by earbuds, which sit inside the ear. Listening to music more than 80 decibels loud, about the volume of a blender, over long periods of time can lead to hearing loss. "There are people doing it, listening with sound pressure levels equal to the highest OSHA allows," Vaughan said, referring to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's maximum decibel guidelines. "I just hope they're not doing it for a long period." But with playlists that can accommodate thousands of songs and many employers and schools allowing the use of MP3 players during the workday, the potential for long durations of listening is there. Brianna and her friend Nicole Gamache, 14, say many teachers will let students listen to MP3s in class, especially during art projects or after a test. But Nicole points out the volume will often be lower or only one earphone will be in so she can still hear what's going on. "But the music does help you focus in school," Nicole said. "Like when you're writing." When you listen for long periods and loud volumes, that's when hearing damage can occur, Vaughan said. Hearing damage occurs like this: The vibrations from loud sounds damage hair cells in the cochlea, which transmits sound information to the brain. "There's a finite number of these cells, you do not grow any more," Vaughan said. "And as they are damaged with exposure to sound, that is loss of hearing" Hearing loss as you age is natural to a certain extent, he said. But some people with hearing loss can trace it back to exposure to such earsplitting things as firing guns or using heavy equipment. Ringing is your body's cue that you've been exposed to loud sounds, but it doesn't always mean you'll have permanent damage, Vaughan said. Vaughan recommends that if you are unsure about how loud your music is, try purchasing a SPL (sound pressure level) reader. You can place ear buds next to it, turn the volume up and see what decibel levels you are getting. Circumaural headphones, which cover the entire ear, are a "hearing sparing" device, Vaughan said, because they allow you to enjoy the music at lower volumes without having to block out background sound, at least in theory. "My personal take on it is if you isolate the ambient sound, you don't have to have it that loud," said Vaughan, a music lover. But others will still pump up the volume. "I turn it up as full as it can go," said Sierra Moreno, a 15-year-old sophomore at Placer. "I like it loud." Moreno said she's not too concerned about hearing loss - she doesn't turn her MP3 player on her cell phone up so loud that it hurts her ears. But it is loud enough to muffle conversation. "Sometimes people will talk to me and I'll only see their mouth moving," she said. "I'll say, 'Huh?' and they'll wait for me to take (the earbuds) out." The Journal's Michelle Miller can be reached at
Turn it down!: Is your music too loud?
Your music may be too loud if:
  • Your MP3 player volume is higher than 60 percent of the maximum.

  • You can't hear conversations around you.

  • Other people can hear your music.

  • You find yourself shouting instead of talking when you respond to people nearby.

  • Tips to prevent hearing loss:
  • Use noise-canceling earphones that won't require turning up the volume to block out background noises.

  • Keep levels at 80 decibels or less.

  • - Mayo Clinic