October 3, 2013.
For the better part of 65 years now, this crotchety complaint has exploded in a cloud of dust from the gummy maws of clueless septuagenarians all over the world. But as it turns out, Gramps is right: Music is designed to be louder than it was when he was a kid, and thanks to machine listening, we can prove it.
The Echo Nest is a music intelligence company located in Somerville, Massachusetts, which supplies musical recommendation engines to the likes of MOG, Rdio, Spotify and more. The Echo Nest's technology essentially listens to music, analyzing it for patterns, then links that data to human-written reviews and analysis on the Internet to give them a better idea of what people actually think of a given track, album, or artist. They've analyzed tens of millions of tracks this way over the years, which makes them uniquely qualified to determine whether or not music is getting louder or not.
Which is just what they did. Analyzing the top 5,000 songs since 1950, the Echo Nest found that the average loudness of music increased very, very slowly up until 1990, when it suddenly exploded, increasing in average loudness by about 39% in just 20 years.
What do we mean, though, when we say that music is "louder" than it used to be? Can't you just turn down the volume if you choose to? Actually, it's not really about how loud the music coming out of your headphones or speakers is, but the difference in volume between the quietest elements of a song and the loudest elements. In any media format--vinyl, cassette, CD, MP3, you name it--there's a maximum volume that an element can be, and that is not growing. It's the quieter parts of a song that are getting louder and louder, resulting in a dynamic range that has continued to shrink over time.
In a way, then, the issue isn't so much that music is getting so loud we're risking our hearing; it's more that music is, when averaged out, less nuanced and complex with every passing year than the year before it. But hey, let's face it, Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass" was never meant to be a subtle, multifaceted acoustic experience. Maybe it's enough to rattle your fillings loose.