Is Sound Getting on Your Nerves?

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume CI, No. 4April, 2001

Jackelyn Frost, CSW

Musicians and composers are highly attuned to sound perception – and for that reason, many of them find New York City a difficult place to live.

Traffic and construction noise reverberate through the “canyon” created by the city’s narrow streets and tall buildings. Screeching subway cars are inescapable. Apartment dwellers are often annoyed by noise in their homes, especially when the building is poorly designed or constructed. The quality of construction has steadily declined over the years, and noise problems are getting worse. But although lack of soundproofing is the most common environmental complaint of apartment dwellers, sometimes the problem stems from failure to apply techniques that exist to address these problems.

Noise levels are directly related to population density, and the urban population is increasing at twice the pace of the non-urban population. The average noise level outside an urban apartment can be 1,000 times more intense than in a rural residential neighborhood. Fortunately, we perceive the difference more like an eight-fold than a thousand-fold increase.

Recreational activities have become steadily more noisy. Loudspeakers can reproduce music and other sounds at levels well above 120 dB. Studies of discotheques and rock concerts have shown the mean of measured sound levels as 103.4 dB. Toys are much noisier than they used to be.


Noise has a significant impact on one’s quality of life; the World Health Organization has argued that it “must be recognized as a major threat to human well-being.” With prolonged or repeated exposure, the adverse effects of noise can be cumulative.

Those who complain about noise often face hostility and ridicule, sometimes are labeled killjoys, and may be accused of being oversensitive. Yet, in physiological and psychological terms, sensitivity to noise is absolutely normal.

People tend to become more aggressive, irritable, anxious or depressed when exposed to excessive sound. Noise exposure can an increase your pulse rate and blood pressure, and cause an increase in stomach acid. Loud noise can also reduce your efficiency in performing difficult tasks by diverting your attention from the job. Chronic noise has also been shown to have a negative impact on memory, attention span and academic achievement (particularly reading skills).

A growing body of evidence indicates that certain drugs and chemicals can increase the threat to your hearing. Stress-related health conditions – such as migraines, shingles or high blood pressure – can result from, or be aggravated by, such exposure. Many people experience an increased sensitivity to noise when they are depressed, anxious or under stress. Some have found that anti-depressants reduce this sensitivity, thus lessening their chronic irritation.

The problems are not limited to loud sounds. Unpredictable and uncontrollable noise also has been noted to be particularly upsetting and potentially physiologically damaging. Such noise places a person’s body in a continual state of high arousal, which can lead to over- or under-production of brain and body chemicals, including neurotransmitters, hormones and other vital substances, thus putting the body in continual “flight-or-fight” mode.

Noise is one of the most common forms of sleep disturbance, causing you to awaken repeatedly or experience poor sleep quality. Such disturbance leads to serious disruption of the body’s biological rhythms and loss of the restorative benefit of sleep. You may not always be aware of the effect noise is having on your sleep: changes from heavier to lighter stages of sleep, reductions in “rapid eye movement” (REM) sleep, increases in body movements during the night, changes in cardiovascular responses and mood changes. All of these can negatively impact your performance the next day.

Hearing loss is one of the most obvious, easily quantified effects of excessive exposure to noise – which musicians, of course, are highly susceptible to and severely affected by. Hearing loss is insidious, usually developing slowly over a period of several years. Since it is usually painless and gradual, your impairment may become disabling before you are aware of what has happened. While losses are temporary at first, they become permanent after continued exposure and there is no medical treatment to counteract this.

You may notice ringing or other sound in your ears (called tinnitus), one result of long-term exposure to noise that has damaged the hearing nerve. Or you may have trouble understanding what people say. They may seem to be mumbling, especially when you are in a noisy place such as in a crowd or at a party. This could be the beginning of high-frequency hearing loss, which a hearing test can detect.

Wearing proper earplugs and having your hearing checked each year to monitor the impact of your exposure to sound are important aspects of self-care for all musicians.

If you would like to speak to a social worker about issues covered in this article, please call the Musician’s Assistance Program at (212) 397-4802.

Information for this article came from the following web sites: “Noise and Its Effects,” by Dr. Alice H. Suter at; “From a Noise Sufferer’s Point of View,” by Valerie Gibson at; “Noise, Ears & Hearing Protection” at