Loud sound causes damage to the auditory system, and is regarded as annoying with serious impacts on physical and mental health [1
]. On the other hand, it is present in many activities that people do for enjoyment: fitness centres [2
], sports events [3
], personal audio systems [4
], live music events [5
], bars [3
] and nightclubs [6
] have all been shown to have high levels of sound. On the face of it, this appears to be a contradiction. Why would people enjoy a stimulus which causes discomfort and negatively impacts health? Data reflecting the attitudes of young adults who enjoy loud music in nightclubs may provide a better understanding of this. Furthermore, interpretation of these data from a theoretical perspective is important to allow future research to apply the findings. These are the aims of this research.
Questionnaire-based findings suggest that young people’s attitudes towards loud music are mixed and depend on what they perceive to be normal as well as their own intrapersonal factors such as personality and symptoms of noise exposure such as tinnitus and fear of hearing loss [7
]. On the other hand, one conclusion of this type of research is the need to look beyond the individual to societal level influences.
A major source of leisure-noise exposure for young people is nightclubs [6
]. They may account for around 70% of the total leisure noise exposure in youth [10
]. Clubbers experienced, on average, an equivalent continuous noise level of close to 98 dBA over their average attendance time of five hours a week [11
]. When comparing this with the maximum noise exposure acceptable for a working life of 42 years, 10 years clubbing would generate more than 60% of the acceptable noise exposure for that working lifetime [11
]. Bar managers and DJs may use music to retain customers, and even control the crowd and reduce conflict [12
]. Loud sound may have other positive effects on business: when music is loud, men drink more, and more quickly, which may be explained by either the high sound level leading to higher arousal or reducing social interaction [14
]. On the other hand, some young adults have been reported to find the sound levels at nightclubs too high [17
]. The social importance of loud music has been demonstrated by its use at events where it is desirable to draw people together and generate a sense of common feeling, such as political rallies [20
]. Parallels may exist with the risks of smoking tobacco [21
] and alcoholic drinks [22
], which have both been shown to cause harm to people and yet are associated with enjoyment and are socially acceptable.
The Social Ecological Model provides a useful way of considering the factors that influence health related behaviours [23
]. The advantage of applying the Social Ecological Model to health-risk behaviours is that, while it accounts for individual attitudes and beliefs, it also takes into consideration the impacts of higher-level aspects of the social environment, an approach which has been called for by previous research in the area [8
]. According to the model, a person’s decisions about health are based on levels of influence: the intrapersonal level refers to the person’s own thoughts and attitudes; the interpersonal level is the direct influence of other people with whom one associates; the community level refers to the cultural influences on health behaviours; and the policy level refers to the influence of laws and other aspects of government policy.
On the intrapersonal level, personality would be expected to influence the appreciation of loud sounds: they provide intense stimulation and arousal, and therefore may be sought out by people high in the trait of ‘sensation seeking’ [24
]. The intrapersonal level would also include factors such as personal preference for style and genre of music as well as a desire for rebelliousness [25
]. The interpersonal level refers to the influence of sound on interactions with others: listening to music in groups, either informally or at concerts is common, and this may partly reflect a desire for group membership with others who adopt similar styles and tastes [26
]. The community level will reflect the accepted practices around loud music, such as when it is played and how loud it sounds. The policy level is governed by legal requirements for noise levels in the workplace [27
], which do not appear to be enforced in environments such as nightclubs or concerts. The Social Ecological Model predicts a lack of good health behaviour when influences towards health are not present at all levels of the model.
In previous, theoretical work, we proposed the Conditioning, Adaptation and Acculturation to Loud Music (CAALM) Model [28
]. This was based on three processes: (1) an initial physiological adaptation that enables people to overcome the discomfort associated with loud music; (2) a classically conditioned response whereby the repeated pairing of loudness with perceived benefits of loud music itself (e.g., masking, social benefits, arousal, excitement) and other frequently associated benefits in bars and clubs (e.g., dancing, fun, friends, alcohol, other drugs); and (3) an acculturation process wherein large groups of people (who have undergone the conditioning phase of the model) begin to perceive loud music as the norm and to associate it with the cultural expression of celebration and fun. The CAALM Model may inform efforts to reduce exposure to loud sound, particularly in leisure settings, and an appreciation of the role of the three processes could provide targets for interventions.
Understanding more clearly why people like loud sounds may hold the key to the design of more effective hearing conservation programmes. The personal rewards of loud sound are immediate, whereas it may be years before the costs are experienced [29
]. Improved understanding of the motivations towards dangerous noise exposure may help in developing influences that would have positive impact on the intrapersonal, interpersonal and cultural levels of the social ecology. The current study investigated why people report liking loud sounds. We focussed particularly on exposures to amplified music in bars and nightclubs, because of the high rates of exposure through this source and its strong association with enjoyment of the loudness of the sound. Participants included both clubbers—consumers of the loud sound—and those who control the sound levels within clubs such as managers and DJs. The latter group were interviewed, in part, to address the question posed by previous research [17
], why is music often played at levels that many people find too loud? We conducted the research via semi-structured interviews (i.e., with open-ended questioning) to allow participants to express their own thoughts about their appreciation of loud sound, in their own way [30
]. We hoped that this might provide richer and more original than might have been obtained from a quantitative questionnaire. The findings were compared to the components of the CAALM Model and the Social Ecological Model was used as a means of placing the themes that emerged from the interviews into perspective.
2. Materials and Methods
In a preliminary phase, we recorded sound levels in clubs in Auckland City, New Zealand using a calibrated CEL-350 dBadge Casella dosimeter positioned as close to the ear as possible, at the lapel or collar. Care was taken to make sure the dosimeter did not attract attention. Dosimeters were calibrated to 114 dBA prior to every measurement taking place. The dosimeter logged sound level measures (Leq dBA) every minute. Measurements were taken across four different clubs beginning at 9:15 p.m. and ending at 2:00 a.m. and made by one of the authors (Guy Fremaux) on Friday and/or Saturday nights across three weeks. Sampling was ad hoc, and the exercise was not intended to provide a rigorous description of Auckland nightclubs, but rather to see whether the sound levels in clubs in Auckland were consistent with the levels reported elsewhere [3
The main part of the research consisted of interviews with people who were involved in leisure noise exposure, either as customers or as those who set the sound levels.
Sixteen people were recruited by advertisement and interviewed: eight 18–25 year olds (five female and three male) who regularly attend nightclubs, six musicians/DJs/sound engineers (two female and four male), and two bar managers (both female). We wished to obtain the views of people who knew and enjoyed loud sound in order that the themes expressed would relate to the reasons why people appear to want to expose themselves to it, despite the physical danger it poses.
2.2. Data Collection and Analysis
Semi-structured interviews of approximately one hour’s duration were conducted by author Guy Fremaux, recorded on an audio device and transcribed by the same author. Semi-structured interviews allow participants to frame their thoughts in their own words and to deviate from the interviewer’s topics as they see fit, allowing greater scope for personal interpretation of the topic than would a list of questions. Five topics were introduced by the interviewer: why people liked loud sounds (all groups); quiet and loud recreational activities (all groups); views on loudness at recreational venues (all groups); management of sound levels (musicians/DJs/sound engineers and managers only); and the role of sound from a business perspective (managers only). Analysis of the data around sound management and the business perspective was conducted separately from the other data.
The number interviewed was driven by the concept of saturation: an initial set of participants were interviewed and the themes raised identified; if these were repetitive, no more interviews need be conducted and where new themes are generated, further participants were recruited on the basis that saturation had not yet been achieved. In interviewing 16 participants, we were comfortable that we had achieved reasonable saturation, though of course it is possible that further themes may emerge with more interviews.
Each interview was read through repeatedly until common responses were identified and a two-stage coding approach was used, where initial codes were applied and then a secondary process of collapsing and re-coding was done. This exercise was conducted across the two authors. A key principle of qualitative research is to extract clarity from the complexity present in natural text or speech. The task is to structure and present the data in terms of themes which allow a reader to develop an understanding of the area based on originality and commonality of themes. Common responses to each theme were grouped and representative quotes used to support the findings [32
]. This approach allows themes to emerge from the data without applying a theoretical model at the analytical stage.
The study had approval from the University of Auckland’s Human Participants Ethics Committee (Ref. 9756) and informed consent was obtained from participants.
In line with predictions based on the CAALM Model [28
], loud sound produced a number of desired outcomes: it arouses and excites; it both draws people together socially and separates them to allow intimacy in crowded environments; it can mask and replace unwelcome thoughts; it can mask unwanted sound and provides a new environment in its place; and it gives people an identity of coolness and toughness. Clubs have high-level sound (Figure 1
), and there is a desire and expectation from customers and staff for this, however there appeared to be disparity in that customers reported that music was sometimes too loud for their taste, consistent with previous findings [17
Consideration of the data suggested that these underlying themes could themselves be linked into a self-perpetuating system that would support and drive a person to feel better about themselves, their social circle, and the environment generally (Figure 2
). The ring around the outer themes shown in Figure 2
suggests how this system might lead to a strong influence on behaviour. For instance, with an arbitrary starting point at the physical sensations associated with arousal, and moving (again arbitrarily) anti-clockwise around the ring, there are enhanced emotions, a removal of inhibitions, greater intimacy, greater group cohesion, creating a positively-charged social atmosphere which is dominated by the sound of the music, stopping unwanted thoughts and making people feel cool and tough, which in turn motivates them to act in line with the arousing physical sensations. A powerful cocktail. Of course, it is likely that this process would occur on multiple levels simultaneously as well.
This provides a fuller understanding of the theoretical concepts described in the CAALM Model. This proposed that three interacting processes would occur: (1) a physiological adaptation to loud sound; (2) classical conditioning to the loudness, driven by benefits of loud sound; and (3) resulting from these, an acculturation around loud sound amongst those who are so conditioned. The themes emerging from interviews support the theoretical position; they also add to it. One theoretical component which is clarified by the interview data is the presence of benefits of loud sound. The CAALM Model lists perceived external and internal benefits (relative to the mind of a person) of loud sound and also draws on other perceived benefits from entertainment environments, such as friendship, dancing, alcohol, and drugs. The interview data show that the perceived benefits of loud sound are real and that some go beyond mere perception into real advantages in a loud-noise environment. In particular, these include masking effects on thoughts, which have previously tended to be considered as negative aspects of noise exposure [33
]; and the association between listening to loud sounds and a sense of personal toughness and power, which we have suggested may reflect a sense of power from overcoming the natural fear and startle responses that could occur due to loud sound but which are known to be under efferent control [34
]. It may be that the exercise of this control provides people with a sense of inner strength and thus a feeling of control and toughness.
4.1. Health Promotion and the Social Ecological Model Perspective
We believe that a better understanding of the reasons why those who enjoy leisure noise enjoy it may provide avenues for health promotion. Currently, loud sound is accepted by many people within our society, despite the known impacts on health it causes [1
]. How can the understanding developed here assist in our consideration of health promotion?
In terms of intervention, a commonly used model for health promotion is the Social Ecological Model. The interview themes can also be aligned with the Social Ecological Model’s levels of influence (Policy, Cultural, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal). Given that the Policy level already exists for nightclub staff in the form of laws about exposure to high-level sound in the workplace, it is interesting that no mention of this was made in the interviews. It may reflect the principle that health interventions aimed at a single level of the model are ineffective [23
], or might suggest that nightclub staff are themselves acculturated to loud music and thus do not consider the sound levels to be a danger. In keeping with these speculations are the findings that there appears to be little effect on exposure levels in nightclubs in places where greater policy controls have been implemented [35
4.1.1. Cultural-Level Influences
At the Cultural level, the main influences appear to be the expectation of loudness from both nightclub staff and clubbers. Nightclub staff used the loud music to influence the customers and clubbers accepted it, even though some felt the levels were too high at times.
Nightclub sound measurements reached levels of around 97 dBA Leq, consistent with those presented elsewhere in recent literature [3
]. This level was the maximum level attained during the night, and levels appeared to rise gradually through the course of the night from approximately 85 dBA Leq at 9:15 p.m. up to approximately 97 dBA Leq around midnight and plateauing there (Figure 1
). The finding was consistent with our interview findings that there may be a culture or accepted practice of increasing music levels through the course of an evening. The auditory system is highly adaptive to sound levels. In high-level sound, adaptation may occur at multiple sites in the cochlea [37
] and throughout the auditory nervous system up to the level of the cortex [40
]. Perceived loudness would depend on both the external level of sound and the degree of physiological adaptation present. Club managers’ auditory systems would adapt to the levels of music through the course of the evening, so maintaining a culturally-accepted level of loudness would require that the sound level be increased as observed.
The desire to keep sound levels high would be driven by club managers’ desire to meet what they perceive to be the wishes of customers. Our finding that people can find music too loud appears to support other research showing that the real feelings are more mixed [17
], and this would be sensible for managers to consider. Previous research suggests that introducing more policy-level intervention to control the sound levels in the entertainment industry has limited success [35
], but the consideration that others might not always enjoy the loudness could have more impact on nightclub managers who may be motivated not to drive away potential customers.
4.1.2. Interpersonal-Level Influences
Loud music may draw people together [29
]. This may simply reflect the shared experience where the sound of the music dominates the environment so everybody in the room is experiencing a very similar state and the group are all in a joyful, excited mood because of it. Furthermore, people can see that other people are influenced in a similar way due to rhythmic movements that occur as a result of the sound [41
On the other hand, loud music also allowed people to interact more intimately. In a crowded room, the sound levels would prevent conversations from being overheard, and nightclubs are generally dimly-lit so would allow a degree of privacy. Adding to these factors are the physical proximity required to communicate which may break down social barriers to intimate contact. In other words, the interpersonal effects of loud sound appear mostly to be perceived as benefits by the people who enjoy it. Interventions aimed at this level may therefore be dismissed as irrelevant by the people who would be targeted by them. However, one theme did reflect the difficulties in conversing in noisy environments in pubs, suggesting that in these environments, loud music is not as tolerated. This may provide an avenue to address the spread of loud music beyond the dance club environment.
4.1.3. Intrapersonal-Level Influences
The interview reports of loud music as exciting and arousing reflect an internal factor motivating people to enjoy loud music [28
]. Loud music would stimulate people via brainstem mechanisms [42
]. The brainstem pathways and nuclei which process sound connect to the reticular formation, which modulates our experience of sound, and is also involved in other sensory systems, initiation and control of motor activity, autonomic arousal, sleep and wakefulness, and emotions [43
]. Activation of the reticular formation would occur via loud music, dance, darkness and bright lights, and emotionally-laden social situations and may be expected to contribute to pleasurably heightened arousal.
Music was reported to block out unwanted sound and to provide a more interesting sonic environment. In line with this, personal audio systems have been reported to provide a more personal sound environment [44
]. By choosing the sound to which one is exposed, one escapes the tyranny of others controlling one’s environment [45
]. Furthermore, our data suggest that a listener who enjoys the music and allows themselves to be captured by it may experience a new and better environment, in line with previous theory [29
]. Loud music was also reported to mask difficult or troubling thoughts, allowing escape from daily concern.
A sense of identity as a tough and cool person was provided by loud sounds. As mentioned above, the control over loud sound gives one power over oneself and other people [45
]. Therefore, the choice of what you yourself listen to and your ability to impose your choices on others would be consistent with the idea of a cool person as someone in control. Furthermore, by mastering one’s own fear-like responses, this sense of toughness may provide reinforcement for loud music due to internal psychophysiology, as described above. It is difficult to see how this would provide an avenue for intervention, but it may explain why loud music is often associated with ‘macho’ or manly personas in our society. Possibly explanation of the postulated mechanism underlying this would, in itself, reduce the sense of misplaced strength and confidence that people obtain.
The enjoyment of loud sound appears to depend on a complex and powerful interaction of forces (Figure 2
). These forces would drive people towards loud music due to cultural, interpersonal and intrapersonal factors, and would thus be difficult to overcome with simple legislative change or well-meaning advice from health professionals. The Social Ecological Model predicts little change in health behaviour without intervention on multiple levels. Laws and regulations against noise exposure at work are ignored in a cultural, interpersonal, and intrapersonal ecology of acceptance of high-level sound. On this basis, interventions would need to address people within a deeper social context.
A preliminary phase of research was conducted as a check that the sound exposures in Auckland were equivalent to those measured in other cities [3
]. We found that they were, but incidentally observed the interesting trend of increasing sound through the course of the early evening. It is unclear from our non-systematic study whether this observation is widespread, however it is consistent with the CAALM Model’s adaptation process and with interview data about club policies in regard to sound levels. Future research is desirable to provide more systematically gathered data around this.
Interventions towards safer hearing behaviour have been shown to be effective in young children [47
], but in teenagers are less effective [47
] or non-significant [49
]. Effects on teenagers were sustained only when interventions involved them more deeply in the process [50
]. This is consistent with the power of the influences described here. One approach suggested by this research may be to intervene via the staff of nightclubs: if managers knew that some of the patrons found music too loud, their desire to satisfy their customers might lead them to control sound levels with ideas such as ‘ear rest areas’ and ‘no access areas’ around speakers to help people enjoy loud music more safely and with choice [6
]. Furthermore, nightclub staff may be regarded as arbiters of the culture and thus have influence over those who come to the clubs: since the staff are damaging their own hearing by setting music levels so high, there may be opportunities to intervene with them. This research has provided some insight into why people enjoy loud sound building on previous findings [17
], and the theory we have developed around it complements the CAALM Model that we developed [28
]. Future research investigating how to break the complex of factors influencing people towards loud sound is important.