Ear Health and Commercial Drum-Track Music
by Jody Nagel
Observations and Opinions
Frequency Amplitude Harmonicity Periodicity
Regarding the health of the ear:
(1) The ear "prefers" mid-high to high frequencies over low frequencies.
(2) The ear is not suited to long intervals of high amplitude.
(3) The ear prefers harmonic to inharmonic sounds.
(4) And the ear prefers sustained sounds over periodic sounds.
Please note that the ear's biological "preference" is not necessarily related to a person's culturally inherited musical "tastes."
(1) High frequencies exercise the flexibility of the ear's cilia (the little hairs that vibrate within the ear canal. Constant low frequencies tend to atrophy the ear's ability to hear high frequency sounds. High frequencies coupled with low frequencies tend to mitigate, to some extent, the negative effect of low frequencies.
"Tomatis's great contribution to science was to define the role that the ear plays in relation to the human body. He tells us that the ear is made not only for hearing, but is intended to benefit the organism by the stimulation of sound. It can be shown by electroencephalography that the brain uses energy. This electricity is engendered by the central grey nuclei, which are like batteries constantly recharging. The energy which is discharged can be captured. These outbursts of activity do not arise from metabolic processes but from the stimulation of this area by the external input. The battery is recharged via the ear. There are 24,600 sensory cells on the level of the basilar membrane's organ of corti, and these cells are accumulated particularly in the zone of the high frequencies. If one augments the capacity of recharging, via auditory input at high frequencies, the richest area of the basilar membrane is stimulated, as these special nuclei of the cortex are the ones which are more energy laden." (Patricia Joudry, p.5, Sound Therapy for the Walkman, 1989, pub: Steele and Steele. This book brings to a general audience the work of Dr. A. A. Tomatis.)
"We have to distinguish between charging sounds, those rich in high harmonics, and the low, or discharging sounds. In the region of 3,000 to 20,000 Hz, sound mainly serves the function of producing cortical arousal, whereas low frequencies tend to exhaust the system; they can actually be dangerous, as they demand of the body a greater discharge of energy than the cortex receives in stimulation. The sound of the tom-tom, for example, is intended specifically to make the body move and to send the listeners into a secondary state, a sort of hypnosis, which puts them at the mercy of more powerful minds, such as the witch doctor's. High sounds, on the other hand, lead the subject to consciousness and self actualization." (P. Joudry, p.8)
"Classical music . . . is the kind of music that contains the greatest preponderance of frequencies." (P. Joudry, p.9) Conversely, a person in a car playing loud rock music has the advantage of some (if not many) high frequencies to mitigate slightly the effects of low frequency sound. The wall of the car itself filters out high frequencies, and a person outside the car hears only low frequencies. So just as with second-hand smoke, "second-hand" music (per unit of time exposed) is even worse for those outside the car than for those inside.
(2) High amplitudes force the cilia to oscillate with ever greater offset deviation, which is stressful to the cilia.
"Prolonged exposure to noise of 85 decibels or higher produces permanent hearing loss, and traffic noises at the 90 dB level are common for the city dweller. Subways and airports have noise levels of 93 and 130 dB respectively. One motorcycle generates the same sound hazard as 100 automobiles." (P. Joudry, p.4)
(3) Harmonic sounds (sounds capable of being heard with a sense of "pitch") cause the vibration of the cilia to be balanced. That is, each little hair spends just as much time offset in one direction as it does in the other direction. This balances to an even "work load" for the cilia. Inharmonic sounds do not necessarily possess this feature, and therefore the cilia can become "lopsided," as, over time, the deviation to one direction becomes more than in the other.
(4) Sustained sounds are gentler on the ear than periodic sounds. A sustained sound constitutes a continuous "push" against the cilia, whereas periodic sounds alternate between pushing and not pushing. The attack onset of a sound is the most turbulent to the ear, as it is at this point that they go from not vibrating to vibrating. In periodic sounds, the attack onset continues to happen over and over, which drastically increases the stress on the ear. Imagine some of the gnarled trees that grow near the ridge of the Grand Canyon: Constant wind from one direction causes the trees, over time, to be bent and to lean in one direction. If this wind somehow were periodic, rather than constant, the trees would not merely be bent, but, rather, they would utterly crack, after some point, and be leveled to the ground, even keeping the force (pressure) of the wind the same as it had been. The turning on and off of this force would be much more destructive than it it is a constant.
In western "pop" music, the bass drum contains the maximally worst set of parameters possible for ear health: low frequency, high amplitude, inharmonic, periodic. There couldn't be a worse-constructed instrument relative to ear-health.
"What the youth of today is looking for is the stimulation of their brain. The trouble is that they are taken up not with charging sounds but with discharging sounds. In the music they play there are no high harmonics. The more they play, the more tired they feel, and the more they are obliged to increase the intensity. That music discharges you; it compels the organism into mechanical movement. Such involvement taxes the musculature without recharging the organism." A. A. Tomatis
Consider the effect of high frequency hearing loss: As the brain loses high frequency sensitivity, it gradually loses the ability to recognize speech intelligibly. The intelligibility of speech is contained mostly in the upper formants (the higher frequencies) rather than nearer the fundamental (the lowest frequency heard). To demonstrate this, listen to a news broadcast on a stereo system that possesses a "graphic E.Q." Turn all bands (except the lowest) to the lowest amplitude setting, and leave the lowest frequency band at the highest amplitude setting. You will notice that the speech is muffled and difficult to comprehend. Next, reverse the situation. Turn all bands (except the highest) to the lowest amplitude setting, and leave the highest frequency band at the highest amplitude setting. You will notice that the speech is clearly comprehensible despite the tinny unnatural quality.
It appears that lowered high-frequency sensitivity is directly correlated to learning ability. At first, desensitized persons begin to shut out speech. The lack of cortical stimulation then begins to allow a partial atrophy of the centers dealing with word recognition, which is itself coupled to the ability to comprehend the written word. Lowered high-frequency sensitivity occurs naturally to some extent simply through the aging process. When the rate of this process is artificially accelerated, overall intelligence can be effected. Recent studies suggest that, in California, an average 18-year-old today has about the same high-frequency sensitivity as a 50-year-old did a half century ago. This reality is presumably a direct result of the kind of music that they so loudly listen to. The lowered average school-achievement levels of our time is directly related. Continuous exposure to loud drum-set music over the years steadily decreases a person's I.Q.
Why should such a sound be legal to inflict willfully on one's fellow man? (which it increasingly seems to be.) Why is it that, concerning music, and speaking analogously, one has the right to "swing his fist into my nose," and I, if I wish not to be hit, must duck? (rather than requiring sound-blasters to first build their own fully sound-proofed listening environments?) Why does the legal structure of our country continue to allow this kind of physical abuse in the name of "free speech," when speech itself is one of its casualties? It comes to this: Continuous exposure to loud drum-set music effects the endorphin levels and biochemistry of the brain. In fact, the resultant chemical "signature" is surprisingly similar to an interrogator's use of "suggestion drugs." This music lowers intelligence and increases susceptibility to persuasion. What more could a commercial economy want from the masses? An average American simply is not allowed to live life outside of the constant influence of this music. This is the real reason why our legal system will not take much of a stand against amplified drum-set music.
It is clear that "commercial" drum-set music has several real effects on the body. The U.S. military obviously realizes this; they used loudly amplified hard rock to blast Noriega in Panama during the 80's. Hard rock was blasted from helicopters in the Vietnam war to terrorize the local people. In the spring of 1997, a South American government used amplified hard rock to disorient radical terrorists holding Japanese hostages. And a few months later a United Nations Council on Human Rights decreed that Israel was not allowed to continue blasting hard rock at their Palestinian captives as a form of torture.
Neurologists recognize that this music creates distraction and less of an ability to focus, and therefore to problem solve. It increases hostility. Super low frequency, high amplitude waves are now being studied by the military as forms of weaponry and crowd control, because the right combination of sonic factors apparently causes people to lose control of their intestines. The music creates nausea in those not mentally conditioned to it. The American incidence of tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is on a dramatic rise, and a good percentage of this is attributable to listening to loud music. (Frequently, however, the tinnitus does not occur until ten, twenty, or more years after the period of regularly hearing loud music.) Many have now heard of Virginia high school student David Merrill's experiment on mice. Originally the mice averaged 10 minutes through a maze. After repeated testings and daily exposures to either silence, Mozart, or hard rock, the silence-immersed mice lowered their average to about 5 minutes; the Mozart mice lowered their average to 1 2 minutes, while the hard rock mice increased their average to 30 minutes. The experiment ended when too many of the hard rock mice killed one another. It is clear that hard rock/rap drum-set music desensitizes the brain, while increasing aggressive behavior. The similarities are obvious in what is happening to people here and now. As unwanted sex is considered to be rape, unwanted commercial music too rapes the mind. The person blasting rock music on their fellow man is no better than a dog peeing on trees to establish its "turf." Inflicting unwanted noise on others is about power and aggression, not about art and speech.
What I really wonder is if [six billion humans on the earth] multiplied by [amplified rock music] equals an increase in the amount of plate tectonic activity of the planet. As Nietzche said, "Without music life would be a mistake." But music that is damaging is even a bigger mistake.
Dr. Jody Nagel
December 2-4, 2003