The Loudness War Is Real and We Can Prove It With Science


(This post originally appeared here.)

“Hey, kids, turn it down!” It’s been a popular refrain for decades. As it turns out, there’s something to it.

We might more accurately aim that request towards the producers and recording engineers who have packed more and more loudness into popular music, over the course of several decades.

The thing is, they aren’t doing all that loud-making in a vacuum (physical or cultural). The audio wizards have been responding to what they think artists and listeners want — and what we want, apparently, is ever-louder music. A bit of extra heat and compression can make songs “pop” a bit more when they come out of your speakers or headphones when juxtaposed with quieter fare. In that sense, we’ve all had a hand in music getting louder over the years — a phenomenon commonly known as “the loudness war.”

We have the data, and it tells a fairly clear picture about loudness over time. The loudness of the hottest 5,000 songs each year increased very slowly from the ’50s through the ’80s, and then more rapidly and steadily, all the way to the present day:


It’s worth defining what we’re talking about here, because loudness is a tricky concept. Whether you’re dealing with analog formats (records and cassettes) or digital formats (compact discs, downloads, and streams), there’s always a maximum volume at which a song can play.

But wait — how is music getting louder, then, if there’s a volume limit?

The answer: by compressing softer and louder sounds within each song into a smaller area — basically, amping up the softest instances to make them closer to the loudest instances — and then cramming that narrower band of loudness right up against the maximum a particular format can take. Although it reduces dynamic range (the distance between the loudest and softest sound you hear on a given recording), the overall effect is to create a perception that the song is louder.

As our chart shows, the loudness war, in which music-makers competed to sound the loudest, was real.

 (Top image via Flickr/digboston)