The audio industry is not typically one that most would consider dangerous. However, the act of music compression and the expansion of large music festivals has created a perfect environment for damaged hearing. The engineers in this industry are instrumental in this process, and they have an obligation to prevent these hearing related injuries. This is due to their responsibility to look out for the common good, the utility of society, their own virtue, and the implications of their ethical code.
In 2017, it was estimated that the average American spends 4.5 hours a day listening to music.  This implies that most people spend slightly less than a third of their waking hours consuming music in some form. This has only become possible due to advancements in technology allowing people to take music on the go. More recently, randomized streaming services and internet radio have become increasingly popular, causing artists to compete for the attention of listeners. As a result, the average volume of music has gotten louder as an attempt to stand out when played consecutively with other songs. This is a phenomenon known as the “loudness wars.” As more music is consumed with the volume of that music steadily increasing, there are concerns over potential health effects and loss of music fidelity. The only people in an effective position to prevent this are the various engineers in the audio production pipeline.
From the original recording to the inevitable playback, there are many engineers involved in creating the potential danger of the listening experience. Sound engineers directly control the mixing of the music and the loudness of the songs at the source. Software engineers build the music platforms artists use to publish, and they control how the music volume is normalized. Finally, electrical and mechanical engineers design the speakers and headphones used to consume this music. At the end of the day, it is the ethical responsibility of these professionals to ensure that music is played back at safer levels to both aid public health and preserve the fidelity of the songs themselves.
The “loudness wars” began in the early nineties, when it became popular to increase the volume of an entire track in order to make it stand out . Over the next few decades this became more prevalent as new technology was invented, capable of adjusting the dynamic range of a recording. The dynamic range of an audio file is the difference between the quietest and loudest sounds. In the studio, mixing engineers have the ability to reduce the dynamic range of a song. Often, the sound engineer will reduce or “crush” this dynamic range down so that more of the song is closer in volume to the loudest part. This is done in many cases because the environment that a consumer listens within is not perfectly silent. Whether someone is listening to music in a car or in headphones on a busy street, background noise can obscure some of the quieter sections of a song. By reducing the dynamic range and changing the volume of these subtler sounds, the sound engineer can ensure that all parts of the song are heard, even in sub-optimal listening conditions. However, this process has a few unintended consequences.
First, as the quieter sounds are boosted to match the louder ones, valuable audio information is lost in the compression process . As a result, some of the quieter details in a song will be denatured. After being artificially boosted, what was once a snare drum might now sound like a piece of leather being hit. Once the mixing engineer makes this decision, there is little chance of ever going back to salvage that audio data. This becomes an ethical dilemma, because it is in the common interest to preserve the intention of an artist. Imagine if the song “Come Together” by The Beatles had been compressed in the production process to sound better on mobile devices. The famous guitar riffs and drum sections would be reduced to droning chords and thin slaps. Current and future generations of listeners would never get to hear the music exactly as the artist intended, and the overall enjoyment would be diminished.
A study conducted among young individuals in the UK revealed that over 70% of the people studied reported that they could not be happy without music in their lives.  It is clear that music is extremely important to culture and society. By making music that objectively sounds worse, sound engineers are potentially limiting the happiness of a massive group of people. This violates utilitarian ethics as the engineer is sacrificing the good of generations of music listeners. While dynamic range reduction and loudness boosting may improve music streaming numbers in the short term, they are impacting the ability for future listeners to enjoy music the way it was intended.
The sound engineers responsible for music production must also evaluate the virtue of their actions. The Foreign Policy Research Institute defines virtuous behavior as “dispositions and habits that enable us to act according to the highest potential of our character and on behalf of values like truth and beauty” . Being faithful to the song and artist is an easy way to maintain virtue when mixing music. Especially in the early stages of music production, these key professionals have a responsibility to uphold these virtues and deliver music the way it was recorded, not simply fight to have the loudest song around.
The qualities of a virtuous sound engineer extend beyond simply ensuring music quality. The trends towards loudness are having another consequence. Researchers have found that as many as 17 percent of teenagers exhibit signs of noise-induced hearing loss . As the younger generations get exposed to increasingly loud music on mobile devices, they begin to lose hearing at a very early age. This problem is compounded by the recent proliferation of large music festivals and their appeal to a younger audience. A virtuous engineer should be aware of the health impacts of the products they create. While it is easy to pretend to be ignorant of the effects of loud music, there are more serious responsibilities an engineer faces when it comes to hearing loss.
It is commonly accepted that any sound louder than 85 decibels over an extended period of time can cause hearing damage, with longer exposures leading to increased risk . In fact, the average concert can easily reach between 110 and 120 decibels . At music festivals, attendees will often go between artists without any breaks, exposing themselves to increased decibel levels all day long. As these concerts and festivals increase in popularity, the danger to hearing only increases. Yet, the use of earplugs in festivals is often stigmatized, so the responsibility falls on the sound engineer to protect the public health.
It can be argued that the public should be allowed to make their own choice about the potential dangers of loud music. However, this view neglects the fact that most consumers are unaware of the long-term health effects that prolonged listening can cause. People are often reminded to avoid looking at the sun and to protect their eyes. Products with potentially dangerous fumes are always labeled. Yet, there are no warnings present on a new pair of headphones or at a music festival. In fact, it is expected that users crank the volume up, as the loudness of a product is often conflated with its quality. On top of the lack of information, most people who are damaging their hearing do not notice it until it is too late. A study by the CDC found that one in four adults who reported “good to excellent” hearing actually had significant hearing loss .
The slow hearing loss of the unaware public presents a few ethical dilemmas for the professional engineer. Primarily, having a large percentage of adults with sound-induced hearing loss presents a major utilitarian problem. As people move from teenage years into the workforce, the potential hearing loss they sustained when they were younger can impact their job performance and ability to interact with others. What was once an isolated health problem for one individual may become a factor that impacts the lives of many others. For example, a customer service representative with undiagnosed hearing loss could have issues hearing a caller over the phone. This not only hurts the customer being served, but also the efficiency and reputation of the company. Therefore, ensuring that everything possible is done to prevent this hearing loss in the first place provides the greatest good to the greatest number of people.
In addition, the NSPE ethical code states, “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public” . By virtue of being an engineer, one agrees to abide by this code in their workplace. Therefore, being cognizant of the health implications of music playback is not only the right thing to do, it is an obligation all engineers have. Sound engineers have the capability and responsibility to have a positive impact on the health and enjoyment of music listeners through their role in the creation of audio hardware capabilities as well as music itself.
It is clear that the music industry is not going anywhere. In 2017 alone, it made 43 billion dollars, the largest the industry’s revenue has been since 2006 . Music plays a clear and important part in people’s lives, and the technology behind its distribution and playback is advancing every year. For engineers, it is important to take a step back and realize the impact they are having on the long-term health and happiness of consumers. In particular, the sound engineers at concerts and festivals are in a powerful position to potentially damage the hearing of thousands of teenagers, many of whom do not understand the implications of hearing loss. The audio industry is unique in the fact that it has escaped any responsibility as to its effects on the listener. However, the individual engineer has a responsibility to follow his or her code of ethics and look out for the health and safety of the public. This is especially important in such a potentially dangerous industry. Often, a speaker amplifier will be capable of increasing the volume until it blows out any connected speaker. At this volume level, the damage to the hearing of anyone standing near it is irrefutable. It is time for all audio engineers to accept accountability for the dangers of their product in order to protect the next generation of fans and ensure that they can listen to the same version of The Beatles that we have.
By Ryan Dale, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California
About the Author
At the time of writing this paper, Ryan Dale was a sophomore studying mechanical engineering at University of Southern California. From speaker design to soldering his own amplifier, he has a passion for music and the hardware used to consume it.
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