Breaking Down Decibels

Ooo, so, this one’s a doozy. Most people don’t find too much fun in breaking down the miniature details of sound and science, but it’s a must! If you’re going to be a professional musician or even a hobbyist, you’ll thank yourself later for putting in the time to be in the know. You’ll surprise and educate others around you and maybe it will teach you a thing or two about the rest of the world around you. 

Breaking_Down_Decibels2_pitstop.jpegSo, how can we break down a decibel in the most straight-laced form while using layman's terms that even we can understand? The decibel, which may be more familiar to you in its abbreviated form as dB, is the unit of description when it comes to how quiet or loud sound is. It is the measurable unit of volume itself. 

How about the more in depth version, you know that part that makes your brain hurt a little while it attempts to wrap itself around the idea in motion? “The decibel is a relative unit of measurement corresponding to one tenth of a bel. It is used to express the ratio of one value of a power or field quantity to another, on a logarithmic scale, the logarithmic quantity being called the power level or field level, respectively.” and Wikipedia gives us their version with “The decibel may be defined by the statement that two amounts of power differ by 1 decibel when they are in the ratio of 100.1 and any two amounts of power differ by N decibels when they are in the ratio of 10N(0.1). The number of transmission units expressing the ratio of any two powers is therefore ten times the common logarithm of that ratio. This method of designating the gain or loss of power in telephone circuits permits direct addition or subtraction of the units expressing the efficiency of different parts of the circuit.”

The World Health Organization informs us of some of the loudest decibels that we encounter. “Normal conversation is about 60 dB, a lawn mower is about 90 dB, and a loud rock concert is about 120 dB. At nightclubs, discotheques and bars, average sound levels can range from 104 to 112 dB; noise levels at pop concerts may be even higher. Patrons may expose themselves to the same level of loudness in 15 minutes of music at 100 dB that an industrial worker gets in an 8-hour day at 85 dB.”

In a future blog, we’ll soon be discussing ear protection and why it’s one of the first things we should all be focusing on, especially if you’re an engineer or living on a daily basis in your headphones or quite close to some powerhouse speakers. Proper sound safety for your ears will allow you to have a long, healthy career as a musician. This is when decibels come in. It’s important to keep track of how much is too much. Have you ever noticed that when you're in a noisy environment listening to headphones, when you go to turn them back on later while in a quiet environment, you get blasted by the previous volume? 

The fact of decibel seems so ingrained in our culture that it can be easy to forget that it was only within our recent global history that this terminology became commonplace. “The decibel originates from methods used to quantify signal loss in telegraph and telephone circuits. Since the earliest days of the telephone, the need for a unit in which to measure the transmission efficiency of telephone facilities has been recognized. The introduction of cable in 1896 afforded a stable basis for a convenient unit and the "mile of standard" cable came into general use shortly thereafter. This unit was employed up to 1923 when a new unit was adopted as being more suitable for modern telephone work. The new transmission unit is widely used among the foreign telephone organizations and recently it was termed the "decibel" at the suggestion of the International Advisory Committee on Long Distance Telephony.”

So, when you don’t need to blast your music, turn it down and enjoy it at a quieter version. There’s something to be said for this way of experiencing music too and it's sadly no myth that your ears may really need a break. We’ll all pay for it later if we don’t heed the advice.