Music-Induced Hearing Loss: What Do College Students Know?

By Frankie Huang

Music-induced hearing loss (MIHL) is a result from listening to music that exceeds 85 decibels for prolonged periods of time. A decibel, or dB, is a unit to measure sound intensity, and 85 dB is roughly equivalent to the sound of heavy city traffic. Our listening devices and preferred listening levels are the leading cause for MIHL. For example, when you’re working out at the gym and you up the volume of your music to 100% to drown out the music the gym is broadcasting, you are putting yourself at risk for permanent hearing loss.

The frequent use of these devices to listen to music and watch videos typically requires the use of headphones, increasing the risk of MIHL. Portnuff, Figor, and Arehart (2011) found that a person should only use their listening devices for no more than 4 hours per day at 70% volume, or 90 minutes per day at 80% volume.

In a recent study, researchers measured college students’ knowledge on the proper use of listening devices and the effects of listening to music at high volumes. It was found that prolonged use of these devices coupled with loud preferred listening levels is higher in males than in females, with males being less aware of safe listening habits and were more likely to exceed the recommended daily limit. The study also found that female students were more conscious of these limits and more knowledgeable about the maximum listening levels per day, compared with their male counterparts. Furthermore, younger students (freshmen) were less aware of safe listening levels compared with older students who were sophomores.

The use of certain headphones can also increase the risk of MIHL. Among college students, in-ear headphones (e.g., earbuds) are more commonly used than over-the-ear, noise-canceling headphones, and in-ear headphones are associated with a higher risk of MIHL. The biggest difference between in-ear and over-the-ear headphone users was the individual’s listening levels: The study found that in-ear headphone users preferred to listen at a higher volume, while over-the-ear headphone users favored a lower volume because the noise-canceling features meant ambient noise was less of an issue.

Headphone users tend to increase the volume if they can’t block out environmental noises. New York City, for example, is usually noisy so individuals are more likely to listen to their music at a higher volume, which is putting individuals at a greater risk of MIHL. There’s also a greater preference for in-ear headphones between males and females. According to the studies, 52.8% of males believed that in-ear headphones delivered better sound than over-the-ear headphones, compared with 46.4% of females.

Overall, the study suggested that individuals should refrain from listening to music and watching videos at the maximum volume for an extensive amount of time. However, if there’s too much background noise, and it's a distraction, the individual should only increase the volume to 80% of the maximum for no more than 90 minutes daily. In addition, education about the risks of hearing loss and how to prevent it is important, including how noise-canceling headphones drown out environmental noises so the wearer can enjoy music on their personal devices at safer levels.

Hearing loss is irreversible, so investing in a quality headphone that can reduce the risk of MIHL is priceless.


Berg, Abbey L. et al. Music-Induced Hearing Loss:What Do College Students Know?. 43rd ed. 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

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