MP3s Bad for the Ears?

A recent article out of Brussels warns that young Europeans are in danger of damaging their ears by playing MP3s.

According to the Reuters story, a European Union body on health risks warns that the young Europeans are playing the MP3s too loud through personal music players. However, the warning is not new, as adults and health officials have warned against ear damage caused by loud music ever since the invention of the portable music device... if not before.

The EU Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks stated that listening to MP3 players and other music devices - at high volumes for long periods of time - can cause loss of hearing and tinnitus. The Committee discovered that 5 to 10 percent of consumers risk permanent hearing loss if listening to loud music for one hour a day each week for at least five years. Currently there is no cure for tinnitus or hearing loss.

"Let's be frank -- we are looking at a catastrophe unless something is done soon," Stephen Russell of the pan-European ANEC consumer safety group said.

While the warning is more of the same heard across decades, one thing to keep in mind is the current music industry's need to deliver loud music. Many call it the "loudness war," and as Wikipedia dictates, this classification refers to the music industry's tendency "to record, produce and broadcast music at progressively increasing levels of loudness each year to create a sound that stands out from others and the previous year." Wikipedia even shows an animated diagram showing the trend in increasing loudness shown in waveform.

So while children of the 80s shrugged off parental scolding about listening to music at loud levels via those nifty tape players, critics of today have a more solid reason to warn against ear damage with louder, potentially damaging levels of music available in physical and digital form. In fact, today's music might actually cause fatigue.

"You get more apparent volume but less dynamics," producer Kevin Killen told the Sun Journal last year, who has worked with Elvis Costello, Tori Amos and Jewel. "By the end of it, the listener just ends up feeling fatigued, a little like an assault to the ears."

In an effort to combat the loudness wars, engineer Charles Dye co-founded Turn Me Up to show that musicians can create softer, more dynamic recordings. He said that record labels and producers originally did not set out to create loud music, to "strip music of dynamics and emotion," but rather continuously increased the volumes over the years because everyone else was doing it.

Ultimately, it's not the actual MP3 that's the root of the problem, but the engineered music compressed within the file. It would not be surprising if some organization steps in and regulates the loudness levels of music by either fining record companies, or implementing hardware volume limitations on music devices. Still, in the meantime, listeners should turn the volume down and preserve the eardrums before music levels become deafening.

Kevin started taking PCs apart in the 90s when Quake was on the way and his PC lacked the required components. Since then, he’s loved all things PC-related and cool gadgets ranging from the New Nintendo 3DS to Android tablets. He is currently a contributor at Digital Trends, writing about everything from computers to how-to content on Windows and Macs to reviews of the latest laptops from HP, Dell, Lenovo, and more. 

  • greenskye
    I love how they try to suck you in with the tag line.

    MP3's have nothing to do with hearing loss. A better description could be "Portable Music Devices Blamed for Hearing Loss".

    Of course, this example, while more accurate would not have encouraged anyone to read the article as we all know that loud music damages the ear. This would have saved 5 min. of my life.
  • Misleading headline is Misleading. Compressing music has nothing to do with hearing loss.

    You even finish the article with "it's not the actual MP3 that's the root of the problem"
  • tenor77
    In related news, hot stoves can damage your hand!!!!!!!!!!
  • Trialsking
    This just in:

    Living leads to death!
  • aevm
    Maybe young Europeans are setting their mp3 players so loud to drown out the noise from the EU Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks.
  • virtualban
    And we bothered about smoking and cancer related to that when we really do have a PROBLEM like this...
    Blame the recording companies for what users do in their earphones, that should do it.
  • skittle
    You all misunderstand.

    What the article is talking about is that the music labels are (and have been since the 90's) boosting the dB level of music to gain loudness. Of course you can only boost the dB so much in a mp3... and were at a point where it is causing severe clipping (cutting off at frequencies). In fact music produced in the 80's is usually of a higher quality than that produced today. So the damage is two fold. Louder music can damage ears, but at the same time we are also receiving an inferior product.
  • dzmcm
    If they where to make an article about record labels screwing up good music with moronic levels of compression it'd be news. Not to everyone, but news worthy to most average Joe's. Or even to state the disadvantages of common ear buds to real speakers. There are ways to preserve integrity and appeal to the everyman, but this is just rude.

    A lie by any other headline is still a lie...Kevin Parrish.
  • doormatderek
    Why the hell are we blaming the record companies? The owners of the devices can choose the level at which they listen. Either way, I blame the 'kids'. Turn the sh1t down for crying out loud. Most of time I like to sing along, and if I can't hear myself as well, I believe it's too damnd loud.
  • KITH
    I find most contemporary music to be fatiguing in a matter of minutes.

    I can't listen to most of the garbage. It is just unpleasant, uncomfortable.