The Science Behind: “If It’s Too Loud, You’re Too Old”

As a teenager, you probably listened to loud music — it seems to go hand-in-hand with adolescence. Whether it was in your room, in the car, on a Walkman, or at live concerts, you probably couldn’t get enough loud music when you were younger. But why? Why is loud music so appealing to teenagers? The answers might surprise you, and science actually points to many reasons.

To find out more, we talked with Barry Blesser, Ph.D. of Blesser Associates and one of the forefathers of the digital audio revolution, about teenagers and why they like loud music. During our conversation, Blesser outlined several scientific theories for us, but he was quick to point out that the science is limited because, quite simply, it would be unethical to study teens and loud music. You can’t just let them “blow their ears out” in a scientific study.

The Science Behind the Saying

But, here’s what we do know about teens and loud music, and it’s fascinating:

  1. It Blocks Out Teenagerhood. Loud music has the amazing ability to help you tune out everything else. We’ve all experienced getting lost in a song or feeling the world fall away at a concert. But Blesser describes it more profoundly. He says that loud music is “a total highjacking of the senses and your ability to think.” In other words, it completely takes over your brain.

    Thus, teens might see loud music as an escape and a welcomed bit of respite from their intense feelings and emotions. For a moment, they can escape their teenage life.

  2. A teenager’s proclivity for loud music is not unlike a teenager’s proclivity for alcohol and drugs."
  3. It’s an Altered State. According to Blesser, loud music can cause an altered state of consciousness because of the highjacking of the senses mentioned above. “If you’re listening to really loud music, you can’t think straight. You can’t even focus on what you’re seeing,” he says. Essentially, it suppresses your other senses and changes how you perceive the world. He goes on to say, “A teenager’s proclivity for loud music is not unlike a teenager’s proclivity for alcohol and drugs.” Teenagers like to experience the world in new and different ways, and the altered state of mind accompanied by listening to loud music is no exception.

  4. It’s Soothing. Loud music can also release endorphins, making listeners feel good. So, essentially, your teenager is self-medicating with loud music — and the saccule is to blame. The saccule, a part of the inner ear, is stimulated when it hears loud music and provides a positive feedback loop to the pleasure centers in the brain. A teenager can’t help it; it’s not a conscious choice.

  5. It’s Addictive. Yes, again, it’s like a drug for teenagers. Not only do they want it, they feel they need it. The endorphins mentioned above are addictive, and if they don’t get them, they can feel withdrawal symptoms, like anxiety.

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Blame the Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for regulating emotions and decision making. And, according to Blesser, “It doesn’t really start coming online until you’re about 15 and it doesn’t finish until you’re about 25.” So, teenagers are really half adults and half children.

This is why it’s hard for adolescents to make good decisions sometimes. Even if they know loud music is bad for their ears, it will be really, really hard for them to turn it down. “And, because it has somewhat of an addictive quality, it’s even harder to regulate,” according to Blesser.

The Perfect Storm

Add to all of the above the invention of earbuds and a plethora of portable music devices, and you’ve got the perfect storm of circumstances to encourage loud listening. Teenagers can listen to loud music all of the time — even without you knowing it. Thus, the soothing, escapist, addictive positive feedback loop for teens may be stronger than ever.

So, after all of this, of course they love listening to loud music! Teenagers are at the epicenter of this storm, and find it completely logical to like and want to listen to loud music. They simply can’t help it. Sorry, parents.

The Really Bad News

But the really bad news is that, consequently, hearing damage may be worse than ever, too. Blesser cautions that just because a device has a volume control that goes up to a certain limit, it doesn’t mean that it’s safe to listen to music at that volume.

There’s massive damage out there. Most adults don’t even know that they’ve blown their ears out.”

Currently, there are no regulations about how loud music can go on personal devices, speakers or at concerts, etc. So, just because you can listen to music at a certain level, it doesn’t mean that you should. The fallout could be disastrous.

“There’s massive damage out there,” Blesser says. “Most adults don’t even know that they’ve blown their ears out.” This is because you can damage your ears without experiencing any pain. “You don’t know it when it’s happening. And, when you notice it, it’s way too late,” he cautions.

Thus, Blesser recommends ear protection for individuals of all ages and conversations with children about the importance of protecting their hearing before they hit adolescence to help minimize the damage.

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So Why Don’t Adults Like Listening to Loud Music?

Sure, there are some adults out there who still like loud music — good for you, just be careful! — but most of us don’t. There are three major factors that could be at play. The first could be because your prefrontal cortex is fully developed. This allows you to make good decisions, and you know that listening to loud music is not good for your hearing, so you can choose not to do so.

Second, as an adult, you probably don’t want your senses hijacked most of the time. Hearing really loud music these days most likely feels overwhelming — and not in a good way.

Third, loud music might not seem as appealing because you may already have some hearing damage and, quite simply, it may not feel good to listen to really loud music anymore.

So revel in your adulthood, save what hearing you have left and ask the kids, “Turn that music down!” But understand full well that they won’t want to and be sympathetic as to why.

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Header photo: Jan Krömer

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