Say what?

On Friday our students put on their annual talent show in a room of about 4000 square feet with a high, hard ceiling. They set themselves up with a sound system, necessary for the electronic keyboard but otherwise I think any of the performers could have done fine acoustically as the room is quite hard. The speaker tower was the size of an upended SUV, an enormous black box dominating the stage.

I was seated at the back of the room, and as soon as the first musical number began, I felt my ears tickle (it was a solo vocalist and his guitar). Tickling ears is diagnostic of incipient hearing damage and happens to a person with normal hearing well above where OSHA caps acceptable industrial sound levels. “Obviously someone will correct that amp setting in a minute,” I thought. I was wrong.

I was in the oldest 5% of that room’s population, and should have had trouble hearing what was comfortable for all the young people in the audience, but instead witnessed another incidence of an ongoing tragedy. The young audience for music have deafened themselves in a vicious circle in which too-loud performances (and iPods, I guess) cause permanent hearing loss that makes them need ever-louder sound levels to hear properly. Deafness in musicians, who experience dangerous sound levels for hours and hours, has become banal. (Here’s a page collecting a bunch of articles on this theme; it’s not speculation or a debatable finding. Read ’em and weep.) The same thing, unmistakable evidence of hearing damage, happened to me in a live theater performance of Wicked, in a hall that had been perfectly adequately filled for decades by unamplified performers, where every singer and instrument had a mike behind his ear or in front of his axe and the mixer board was cranked up to “apocalyptic”.

It’s completely nuts that music makers and music lovers should make themselves unable to hear the subtle sounds than make music interesting, though it does a lot to explain the increasing simplicity and sloppiness of current popular music. The problem involves mediocre musicians for whom the usual musical tools to gain attention or emphasis are beyond their skills, but the volume control on the amp is always there, and a lot easier and faster than practicing. It also comes from people with the wonderful illusion of immortality and immunity of youth, many of whom have never learned the difference between music that needs listening and an artillery barrage of light and sound.

We have an Occupational Safety and Health Administration, with sound exposure limits for varying exposure times that are completely consistent with hearing every note of a concert, from pppp to ffff. Why has it left musicians and audiences completely on their own, wrecking their physical ability to engage with music itself in this lunatic, and tragic, decibel arms race? Why isn’t there a flat regulation of concert sound levels? It’s really simple. Radio Shack will sell you a perfectly adequate SPL meter for less than $100, and every concert promoter just needs to walk down the aisle with one when they’re setting levels, and once or twice during the show, and have a word with the sound guy if needed, before the OSHA or state public health inspector starts writing citations.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.