Have you been paying attention to the debate surrounding increased loudness in music? If so, you’ve probably heard of the term ‘loudness wars,’ as well as arguments indicating that it is destroying music as it is intended to sound.
Loudness in music is a big issue nowadays and has even sparked a movement to try and stamp it out. What’s the noise all about though? Is it much ado about nothing? Or is it just another tactic that artists use to try and stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace?
What is Loudness in Music?
In the past, it might have meant the noise level of the music being played by an inconsiderate, rebellious teen, or a rowdy neighbor. However, in the last decade, it has taken on a more technical and inherent meaning, although probably linked to the idea that the louder, the better.
Since the early 1990s, music producers and engineers have been raising audio level ratios in recorded music in an attempt to create a more attention-grabbing sound. According to the experts, this is made possible in digital recordings by compressing the dynamic range and using equalization techniques to amplify sounds that would otherwise have come out soft or barely audible
As a result, all the areas are outputted at a high volume, resulting in even the lowest pitches to easily stand out when the song is being played. For the untrained listener, it might not be much of a big deal. After all, you can always turn down the volume if the track is coming out of the speakers too loudly. But more and more people have become aware of it over the years, especially since a number of older songs have been remastered to sound louder.
Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and “Black or White” are among popular songs that have been given the loudness treatment with latter versions. Loudness in music has been showing up more frequently in newly-released tunes as well. Many of the songs on Taylor Swift’s 1989 disc, for example, have been described as being loud, as well as Justin Bieber’s latest compilation. In fact, a number of songs from these and other pop-oriented artists have been found to be louder than tracks put out by heavy metal bands, who tend to be naturally loud.
So, What’s the Issue with Loudness?
Loudness may cause distortion in some of the higher parts of a song, making it hard to listen to, especially when turned up. Some music aficionados even argue that being loud robs some songs of their emotional impact because the softer parts are...well…too loud to be noticed. In addition, some critics of loudness say the altering of the dynamic range causes the song to sound flat rather than showcase the dynamics of different sounds used for the composition.
So strong has the feeling become about loudness that a ‘Dynamic Range Day’ has been observed in the past few years to try and counteract the continued creation of ‘loud’ songs. The argument is that there is no need for loudness, because listeners are more interested in dynamics.
Research has even been carried out to prove that loudness is unnecessary. According to the Dynamic Range Day website, the research shows that louder songs don’t sell better overall than songs that are recorded naturally. In addition, the authors argue that loudness makes no sense because most listeners tend to turn down the volume anyway; plus music playing outlets, such as radio stations, and even Spotify, use equalizing technology which cancels out the loudness.
Still, despite the backlash, many of today’s hits are being tweaked to output maximum loudness, perhaps to try and attract listeners. And while the crescendo concern is not shared by all, many others are selective of the types of music they listen to in order to escape it.