Have you heard someone ask this question? Have you asked it yourself? It is a question I hear frequently from persons in my office. The answer is not simple nor is it the same for everyone. There is one important factor, though, that remains poorly understood.
A short anatomy lesson
Our inner ear, or cochlea, has thousands of cellular components called hair cells. These cells act as biological amplifiers when the sound arriving at our ear is soft. That is, they pump up and down at the same frequency as the sound entering our ear making it more intense. This allows us to hear very soft sounds.
These same cochlear cells which amplify soft sounds can also contract and dampen the loud sounds which enter our ear. This prevents the ear from being over driven and this, in turn, prevents distortion.
So what happens if these cells are gradually damaged so that they no longer work properly? The simple answer is that we have hearing loss. We are not able to hear soft sounds as well as we once did because these cells are not able to perform their amplification function. But paradoxically, we may also be more disturbed by loud sound. The hair cells are not able to damp, or attenuate, loud sounds.
How does this relate to preference for music loudness?
Let’s imagine that two people are sitting next to each other listening to a concert. One person has perfectly normal hearing and normal cochlear hair cells. The other person has damaged, or compromised hair cells. When the music becomes loud the person with the damaged hair cells, i.e., the person with a mild hearing loss, will experience more vigorous vibration in their inner ear than the normal hearing person sitting next to them. The loud music is literally more intense inside their damaged ear than in the normal ears of the person right next to them. The more vigorous vibration in the damaged inner ear can be perceived as unpleasant. This helps to explain at least part of the reason why some people complain about loud music.
Hearing aids and loud music
Fortunately, modern hearing aids have very good automatic volume control systems. If sounds seem too loud through your hearing aids it might be worth a visit back to your audiologist for adjustment. And if someone you know complains that the music is too loud it may very well be more than just their subjective personal preference. It might be time for them to have their hearing checked.