Black Sabbath. The Clash. The Ramones.

A young David Welch used to blast them all at full volume, hardly wondering what it was doing to his permanent hearing – yet slightly curious why he loved his music loud.

Three decades and a PhD later, the University of Auckland hearing expert has the answer, and it's a surprisingly complex one.

"I used to enjoy going to gigs, and while nowadays I feel a bit too old, I still sometimes listen to music loud. But now I've got a bit more understanding about why we need to be careful," he said.


"After gigs, I'd have this ringing in my ears that would go on for a couple of days. I didn't worry about it too much at the time, as it always stopped. What I wasn't aware of, was that apparent recovery came with a little bit of permanent loss."

So why is it that so many of us enjoy ultra loud music?

When he and colleague Guy Fremaux began researching the question, one obvious reason was that we associate it with fun.

In an exploratory study, they interviewed Auckland nightclub staff and regular clubbers, which confirmed and extended a theory they were developing.

Dubbed CAALM – or Conditioning, Adaptation, Acculturation to Loud Music - their theoretical model teases out the different factors at play.

"Conditioning" referred to the repeated pairing of loud music with having fun, so that loud music itself came to elicit pleasure.

The process of "adaptation", meanwhile, was automatic - when we entered a loud environment, we could initially feel shocked by the sound, but gradually that passed as our auditory systems adapted, and we learned to tolerate the sound.

That might also explain the researchers' finding that the volume crept up across the night in nightclubs, peaking at around 97 decibels at midnight and staying there.


"We think probably what's going on is the staff's ears are adapting so they're turning the volume up, and this continues through the night," Welch said.

"Acculturation" referred to our collective expectation of loud music at clubs, parties and similar events.

CAALM also identified four elements of loud music that could make it feel good in its own right; first, on a physiological level, music arouses and excites us, directly tapping into the deeper, animal parts of our natures that evolved for survival.

"Our auditory systems evolved to warn us about our environments and our ears are deeply connected to the parts of the brain that evoke arousal, (the hypothalamus), wakefulness (the reticular activating system), and that mediate emotions (the amygdala)," he explained.

"The loudness of music activates systems that kept our ancestors ahead of the predators and that influence is very strong: we feel thrilled; we want to move and dance; we feel alive."

Loud sound could also offer refuge from the world and ourselves, cocooning us, drowning out all other sounds and even our own thoughts.

"In the pounding of loud music, our worries and anxieties are masked, and the mind is empty and calm," Welch said.

"And it may go beyond this, because music brings its own meaning, generating images and concepts in our mind: it can transport us to a new, carefree place."

Finally, some people feel that loud music offers them a stronger identity - particularly one of personal power and toughness.

"Think of hard rock and rap music; the anger and power in heavy metal."

Another fascinating finding was that some people going to clubs didn't necessarily want loud music, they just wanted to go clubbing - but they accepted the loudness of the music as a part of the experience.

"Like a lot of things that we enjoy, too much is potentially dangerous, and we need to learn to balance our exposure," Welch said.

"Fun is important, but you can hurt yourself and others if you listen too loud for too long."

His best advice was to find a balance: pack ear plugs when you're heading out so you can control your own exposure, and avoid loud music if you have had other loud noise exposure that day – give your ears a rest.