According to a study published this week, musicians turn the volume up higher than non-musicians when they listen to music, especially when it’s a tune they like.
“These go to eleven,” fictional guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) tells documentary maker Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) in the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap when he shows him the special volume knobs on his amplifier. To Tufnel, it’s important that music is as loud as possible.
And he may have been on to something. In a new research paper published in PLOS One, researchers from The University of Manchester gave musicians and non-musicians control of the volume knob to find out which volume they preferred to listen to. They recruited 17 non-musicians and 17 musicians who played in rock and jazz bands and learned that the musicians preferred their music louder.
So why is that? One possible reason could be that musicians have been exposed to more loud noises over time and need the volume higher simply because they can’t hear as well otherwise. But all the participants in this study took a hearing test to make sure that they all had similar levels of hearing. They were also all roughly the same age (between 20 and 40, with the average just under 30 for both groups). Physiologically, they should all be fine with the lower levels, but the musicians just wanted more.
All the volunteers listened to the same six music samples across a range of genres: “Whole Lotta Love” (Led Zeppelin), “Heartbeats” (Jose Gonzales), “Crazy In Love” (Beyoncé), “Sad But True” (Metallica), “Virtual Insanity” (Jamiroquai) and a movement from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
When listening to these samples, the participants were asked to change the volume until the sound was “suitably loud and enjoyable”. They also noted which of the songs they liked best. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers noticed that people tended to listen to songs they enjoyed at higher volumes.
But across the board, the musicians – who were recruited at local university music performance and audio engineering campuses – turned the volume up higher than the non-musicians. That could be risky over time, because it increases the amount and level of noise they hear over their lifetime. Already, the study noticed that the musicians had been exposed to more noise over the course of their life. That could be, for example, from regularly working at live music venues. The study also found that the more noise someone had been exposed to in their life, the higher they preferred the volume when listening to music.
Since all the participants had similar hearing abilities, the difference between musicians and non-musicians didn’t seem to be the result of hearing loss, unless it was very mild and undetectable. Instead, the researchers suggested a few other possible explanations. One possibility had to do with how our brains decide what’s “enjoyable”. Perhaps musician brains need higher volumes for the music to become enjoyable, or non-musicians don’t manage to get this “hedonic response” in their brains at all so that it does not matter how loud the music gets (so they might as well listen quietly).
But another explanation is much simpler: Maybe musicians just like to listen to all the details in the music because that’s what they do. In the article, the researchers put it as follows: “Musicians may listen to music at higher levels in order to hear the more nuanced musical aspects or may simply enjoy music more so than non-musicians and are therefore happy to listen to music at a higher sound level.”
So maybe this explains why Nigel Tufnel needed amps that go all the way to eleven. As he says in This Is Spinal Tap, “It’s one louder, isn’t it?”