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How Loud Is too Loud? Church Music, Headphones and Your Child's Hearing

child-singing-churchby Robert W. Woods, Ph.D., C.C.C.A., F.A.A.A., A.B.A.

Q. The music is really loud in my church. I’m worried about my kids’ ears. How can I tell if it’s too loud? And if it plays for about 20 minutes a week, is that enough to be harmful?


A.
Based upon my experiences in various houses of worship, sound levels typically don’t reach levels of concern. However, if you’re still worried you should speak with your church’s music director.


HOW TO TELL IF NOISE IS TOO LOUD

As your question accurately indicates, the potential for hearing loss depends on how loud the noise is and for how long you’re exposed.

Say you’re talking to Joe. He’s standing 3 feet away. If he’s speaking normally, you’re hearing his voice at about 60 decibels. If he’s a soft speaker, it’s more like 40. Loud is about 80. All sound below 75 decibels is safe regardless of the exposure length.

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Although most people can tolerate up to approximately 120 decibels (in a short burst), it’s wise to limit exposure at levels above 75. As loudness increases, hearing-loss potential increases, especially if that exposure is for long periods, such as at concerts, fireworks displays and auto races. Hearing loss also can result from a short-term traumatic noise exposure from a nearby exploding firecracker or truck backfiring.

As a rule of thumb, if you can’t hear people talking 3 feet away or if they have to shout to be heard at that distance, the noise is too loud and could be damaging.


EARBUDS AND OTHER HEADPHONES: HOW TO KNOW IF YOUR CHILD IS USING THEM SAFELY

A potential risk to your children’s hearing might be in your own house. Audiologists (professionals specializing in hearing) are seeing more young people with hearing loss due to noise exposure. Some have attributed this to personal listening devices.

If you’re standing within 3 feet of a child wearing headphones and you can hear the music, or the child can’t hear you speaking, the music is too loud. A person wearing headphones should be able to communicate with others in a normal fashion. Help your children set their devices’ loudness level in a quiet environment. Advise them not to turn up the intensity to compensate for external sounds (like traffic noise) or for ill-fitting headphones that thus don’t block out enough noise.


HOW TO PROTECT YOUR HEARING

When they can’t avoid loud sounds, I encourage my patients to use hearing protectors, especially when they’re using power tools, lawnmowers and so on. You can find earplugs at local pharmacies.

A growing trend is for concertgoers or children in bands to wear musician’s earplugs, some of which audiologists can custom mold. They allow the wearer to hear the sound’s quality, just quieter. Prices range from well under $20 (noncustom) to around $150.

Unfortunately, hearing loss due to noise exposure is permanent because it affects the inner ear’s delicate structures. But with all those concertgoing Baby Boomers hitting the hearing market, there are some cool-looking hearing aids out there, along with discrete ones.


Audiologist
ROBERT W. WOODS PH.D., C.C.C.A., F.A.A.A., A.B.A., is founding director of Speech and Hearing Associates in New Jersey and board member of the New Jersey Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Last updated and/or approved: May 2010. Original article appeared in July/August 2008 former print magazine. Bio current as of July/August 2008. This article is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.

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Comments (6)add comment
0
why won't they listen
written by Connie Baker , April 05, 2014

Our church has recently become unbearably loud. Voicing my concern went nowhere. WE have to educate music leaders in our churches about the dammage the are doing. They will not listen
me. I am just a complainer and I was told "many people like it loud". Also in our large church are many babies and young children. I saw one child put her hands over her ears. One elderly woman had a racing heart and changed to a toned down service. I don't understand why these people just don't listen. Maybe they have hearing loss!

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There are OSHA regulations
written by Tom , January 26, 2014

There are the OSHA guidelines for how long you can safely be exposed to sound at varying degrees of loudness (source https://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=STANDARDS&p_id=9735):
TABLE G-16 - PERMISSIBLE NOISE EXPOSURES (1)
_______________________________________________________
_______
|
Duration per day, hours | Sound level dBA slow response
____________________________|__________________________
_______
|
8...........................| 90
6...........................| 92
4...........................| 95
3...........................| 97
2...........................| 100
1 1/2 ......................| 102
1...........................| 105
1/2 ........................| 110
1/4 or less................| 115
____________________________|__________________________
______

Get yourself a proper sound meter; computers and smart phones are notoriously inaccurate, as the mics in them are designed for a completely different purpose.

When my praise team hits 90, averaging 87, the older folks (with the bad hearing lol) start to complain, even though our organ hit 95 most of the time. So we just use this chart and let them know they're safe for at least 8 more hours.

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iPhone Decibel App
written by Jeff , October 12, 2013

Yes! Use dB Meter Pro app on iPhone and probably available on other smart phones. We continue to document the decibel levels at our church. We love our church, but they are damaging peoples' ears every Sunday in several services and don't seem to acknowledge or care. So we are trying to prove it with the data each week. We seem to be in the minority and most people I guess have bigger fish to fry (until they can't hear in their 50s). Very short sighted for this hearing problem!
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this answer may need updating for contemporary worship styles
written by Clara , August 23, 2011

Not sure if this doctor is aware of the sound levels in many modern churches... 85 dB seems to be a lower limit of how loud the music is amplified. It seems many churches run their worship closeer to 95 dB and some even louder, more than 100dB. In my opinion, some churches are too loud.
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Church Music
written by Rusty Blevins , July 12, 2011

How can one tell if church music is loud enough to be damaging? Is there a device or gadget that can be bought in order to detemine the decibels (loudness)of the music, and how long before it causes permanent damage?
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Good info
written by Dan , June 04, 2011

I like to listen to my headphones, some good information here so I don't lose my hearing...thanks!
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