Healthful Music
impacts our body without overwhelming our sensory systems

Each musical note creates a regular pattern of changes in air pressure which stimulates our ear-drums to vibrate in and out. The number of times the eardrum flexes each second (frequency) communicates to our brain the pitch (high or low) of the note. The eardrum flexes more as sounds become louder. At some point, sounds can get so loud they eventually damage the eardrum. The body’s sensory systems eventually shut down when sound levels reach harmful levels. Permanent hearing loss and emotional disengagement can result from exposure to high-level sound pressures for sustained periods of time. 

Our sensory systems are more sensitive to subtle stimulation than those which are more pronounced. In the case of music, quiet sounds are heard most clearly. From the earliest times, our brains and sensory systems were tuned to perceiving the environment for danger and opportunities for food. These features remain in our biological heritage even though the benefits of civilization no longer require constant vigilance to remain alive. We still are better equipped to process quieter sounds. But as volume increases, sound has less and less impact on us.

As the volume increases, our hearing progressively becomes more variable in sensitivity particularly in the case of high pitched sounds like the higher frequency sounds of the piccolo. Sounds in this range and above, unless in musical form, are experienced as noise. Due to their own unique tonality, when two instruments, like a flute and a bass-guitar, play the same note at the same decibel level, we hear the note played on the flute as the louder of the two. There are two major systems for measuring the loudness of sounds; decibels (dB) and sone. The most popular system for sound loudness or intesity is known as decibels (dB). Decibels are not the best suited system for monitor listening levels within safe limits.

Decibel System of Loudness Measurement

Relative Sound Intensity Decibels (dB) Relative Loudness
1 0 1 (almost silence - sigh)
10 10 2 (small fly)
100 20 4 (large bee)
1,000 30 8 (humming)
10,000 40 16 (quiet conversation)
100,000 50 32 (solo violin)
1,000,000 60 64 (busy restaurant)
10,000,000 70 128 (rush hour)
100,000,000 80 256 (loud orchestra)
1,000,000,000 90 512 (night club)
10,000,000,000 100 1,024 (rock concert
100,000,000,000 110 2,048 (large fireworks
1,000,000,000,000 120 4,096 (pain - road drill)

John Powell
How Music Works, Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 2010, p.95

The Sone System is a more appropriate tool for measuring loudness since it takes into account the various characteristics of different sources of sound including musical instruments. Since much of today’s music is played through portable listening devices at high volumes, this is very important. Unfortunately, the decibel system is the standardized system available for sound measurement. Hopefully, this will change. The Sone System is illustrated in the chart below: 

Examples Relative Loudness Sone
Almost silence (a sigh) 1 0.06
A small fly in the room 2 0.12
A large bee in the room 4 0.25
Someone nearby humming a tune 8 0.5
A fairly quiet conversation 16 1.0
Solo violin, moderate volume 32 2.0
A busy restaurant (or ten violins) 64 4.0
City traffic at rush hour 128 8.0
An orchestra playing loudly 256 16.0
Very noisy nightclub 512 32.0
Close to speakers at a rock concert 1,024 64.0
Big fireworks explosion  2,048 128.0
Pain - road drill 4,096 256.0

John Powell
How Music Works, Little, Brown & Company, 2010, p. 100