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I can’t hear you! Headphones & Earbuds – part 2

In part 1 of I can’t hear you! Headphones & Earbuds I talked about the pleasures and advantages of listening to music with an iPhone or MP3 player in public areas.

What about the bad things?


I’ve noticed some people, especially young people, listening to iPods with the sound so loud that I can clearly hear what they are listening too. This is really loud. This is so loud that hearing damage is happening. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is becoming a major concern. Experts agree that most personal MP3 players like iPods produce well over 100 dB of output when played a high volume. 85 dB is the level at which hearing damage begins. The maximum time that we can endure 100 db without doing permanent damage is 15 minutes. If you can’t hear someone speaking to you from a foot away when listening to an MP3 player your volume is too loud.

In the US, a paper published by Niskar et al* in 1998 reports that 15% of American teenagers have NIHL. This cannot be repaired or reversed. Are we creating a generation of hearing impaired people? The cost of serious hearing loss is difficulty in communicating and feeling isolated which often leads to serious depression. What is it going to cost us as a society? What will the impact be on quality of life and business productivity?


This is a term coined by Canadian composer Murray Schafer. It refers to the increasing number of sounds in our environment that no longer emanate from what we would call an expected location in space – like a voice being heard on a loud speaker in the ceiling rather than from the person speaking across the room. This is not recognised as an actual disease, but Schafer coined the term to capture the quality of nervousness that this kind of disassociation of sound from source can cause – perhaps a kind of confusion or bewilderment about where a sound is coming from. Wearing headphones produces perhaps the most severe form of Schizophonia as the sound you are hearing is not at all related to anything you are seeing.

The thing I’ve noticed for myself about Schizophonia is that wearing headphones effectively isolates me and disconnects me from people in my environment. As a result I’ve begun reducing the amount of time I listen to music with headphones when in public.

Part 3 is about some recommendations and solutions for protecting your hearing and sanity while listening to your MP3 player. Read Part 3 now.

* As referenced in “Sound Business” by Julian Treasure.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Lor September 18, 2011, 2:24 pm

    Yes, Craig, you are absolutely right about the impact that listening to loud music on headphones in public places has on the listener. It does indeed isolate people from their environment. While the intention is to enjoy a little music while commuting, which is no bad thing, it can have the effect of putting up a wall of indifference between the listener and those surrounding them. It effectively says “don’t bother me, I’m not available right now”. It makes them unapproachable. While this may afford them the illusion of privacy in public, it also gives them a false sense of security. Which is another problem I think needs addressing. If you listen to music on headphones at a volume that is loud enough for others to hear, you cannot possibly hear anything going on around you. While traveling on public transit, or even just walking around, the ability to hear what is going on around you is paramount. We need to be responsible for ourselves and being fully present and aware of our immediate surroundings is part of that. Just as you would be paying attention to what other drivers are doing as you navigate your vehicle, you have to keep tabs on others around you. Accidents happen in the blink of an eye, and are most often due to a lack of attention, which makes most of them entirely preventable. It behooves us to remember that while in public, we’re not alone out there and that our actions have consequences. On another note, just as smoking in public forces others to breathe in toxic fumes against their will, so does blasting music so loud it disrupts other people’s peaceful enjoyment of their traveling space. It is aggressive and offensive. A little consideration goes a long way. That said, I have been known to zone out while listen to music on my daughter’s iPod while on the Skytrain, but only with her there to look out for me and make sure I’m safe for myself and others. I would not do that while traveling alone. I make sure I adjust the volume so that she can’t hear what I’m listening to while sitting right next to me. That way I know I’m not disturbing anyone else and that I’m not damaging my eardrums. (On occasion, she has asked me what I’m listening to when a particularly blissful expression comes across my face, at which point I’ve handed her an earbud and we’ve continued our journey companionably sharing both music and awareness of our surroundings). Listening to music while sitting down, (either on transit, or some other public place) isn’t a safety hazard for others, but doing so while moving around actually is. Listening to it at a volume that cancels out any ambient noise is dangerous for both the wearer and those around them: dangerous for the wearer’s hearing, and dangerous for those surrounding them in that it creates a space of carelessness into which accidents get created. At the very least, those enjoying music while in transit should turn the volume down as soon as they are in motion, for everyone’s sake including their own.

  • Craig September 21, 2011, 3:56 pm

    Hi Lor,
    Wonderfully said. You have clearly thought about this carefully. I think part of the problem is people are not aware of the impacts and costs you have identified. So we blithely carry on without giving it a thought.

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