Tune In, Turn It Down

Music induced hearing loss best controlled with volume dial

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) On a loud street, it’s sometimes hard to hear your favorite song on your music player. Most people crank up the volume when there's background noise like traffic.

But, as many know, hearing better in the moment can lead to hearing worse later. Just how much volume is safe?

A new study provides recommendations for the best listening levels and earphone type to avoid music-induced hearing loss.

"Don't blast your earbuds, even if there's background noise."

Hayo A. Breinbauer, MD, of the Ear, Nose, and Throat Department, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, led the study to find out how personal music players (PMPs), earphones, music styles and preferred listening levels affect the sound pressure volume people are exposed to.

The researchers also wanted to make recommendations for the prevention of hearing loss from listening to music based on their research.

The study included 45 volunteers who were recruited from medical staff and nonmedical personnel working at the Catholic University of Chile, Department of Otorhinolaryngology. All had good hearing.

Fifty-three percent of the participants were females. The average age of the group was 29 years old.

The participants were asked to select preferred listening levels on different personal music-listening devices in different background noise scenarios.

Each participant used three different devices and earphone types and ten music styles.

The three different listening devices were an iPod, an MP3 player and a mobile phone. The three different earphone types were earbud, in-ear and supra-aural, which are larger headphones that cover the entire ear.

Based on popular music rankings at the time of the study, five songs from ten different music styles were identified for use in the research: classic rock, heavy metal rock, electronic, pop, Latin pop, folk, reggaeton, hip hop, Latin salsa and classical music.

Researchers inserted a microphone probe into the volunteers’ ear canals to measure the sound output levels for each of the situations.

The highest output registered was with an iPod device, in-ear earphone and hip hop music played at the maximum volume settings.

There was no significant difference in sound output between device types.

Earphone type, however, significantly influenced how much sound output was recorded in the inner-ear probe microphone. The over-ear headphones had significantly lower sound pressure output than earbud earphones, which were also lower than in-ear earphones.

The music styles were divided into medium output and high output categories based on the sound pressure output that was recorded while they were playing. Classical music was the only low output style.

Styles that were classified as medium output were: folk, pop, salsa/Latin music, classic rock and Latin pop. High output styles were: electronic, heavy/metal rock, reggaeton and hip hop.

Their findings led researchers to the following recommendations for personal music playing to avoid hearing loss:

  1. Music players should be set at the lowest comfortable volume possible. The safest level is at 50 percent of the player’s capacity or lower.
  2. When selecting earphones, it’s better to choose ones with higher background noise-blocking capabilities like in-ear and especially supra-aural earphone types.
  3. Time limits should not be exceeded regularly to avoid music-induced hearing loss.

Time limits for medium output music styles ranged from 14.7 hours per day at 60 percent volume capacity using in-ear earphones to only 32 minutes of 100 percent volume capacity using earbuds.

Time limits for high output music styles ranged from 22.4 hours of listening per day at 70 percent volume capacity using over-ear headphones to only 2.5 minutes of listening with in-ear earphones at 100 percent.

The study pointed out that recommended exposure time may be even lower in noisy environments depending on the type of earphone since the background noise adds to the total volume pressure.

The researchers concluded that they hoped they had provided “a rationale for the development of specific recommendations and interventions to prevent what could become a major hearing-health issue, especially for adolescents and young adults who will listen to music with their PMP for years to come, and may incur hearing loss in the future.”

It’s important to note that this was a small study that only involved 45 participants. With small research groups there is a risk that results might not be the same in the population at large.

The study was published online on October 11 in the journal Laryngoscope. The researchers reported no conflicts of interest. No information about research funding was provided.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 8, 2012
Last Updated:
November 14, 2012