Music and podcasts are now part of our daily lives. Equipped with our headphones, immersed in the musical or fictional universe of our favorite artists or authors, we put our ears on the front line. And that’s not counting the shows or even the movies we’re going to see.

But prolonged, cumulative listening to these compressed sounds, designed to rise above (increasingly louder) ambient noise, has a negative impact on our ears, experts tell us.

“When we talk about overcompression, we are talking about the absence of micropauses and extremely high sound density, explains Christian Hugonnet, acoustic engineer. It’s not just a question of volume, we’re talking about a sound that never goes down, which remains charged and which, in the long run, causes a rupture of the stapedial reflex. »

The acoustic reflex is a defense mechanism that causes the muscles of the ear to stiffen when they detect a sound source that is too loud, preventing sound from entering.

“We conducted a study⁠1 on guinea pigs, which have ears almost identical to ours, explains Christian Hugonnet. After four hours of uninterrupted listening [I Miss You by Adele, at 102 dB, the level of a nightclub], they lost 50% of their ability to trigger their stapedius reflex. After a week, they were still at 50% capacity… So we have a real problem. »

Compressed sound appeared in the 1960s in the music industry, particularly in the mixing of guitar and drums, recalls Christian Hugonnet. “If we had raised the level of the guitar, we would have overdriven the recording, so what we did was smash the sound of the guitar and we brought it up to the level of the drums . »

Put simply, compression reduces the gap between quieter sounds and louder sounds.

“What we do is that we transform a soufflé into a pancake, and this pancake, we level it up where you want, illustrates Christian Hugonnet, who is also the founding president of the Semaine du son, sponsored by UNESCO. We started with the mixing of the instruments, then we did it with the sound of the voice, so that even if I do not speak very loudly on my phone, you can hear me very well. »

Advertisers have taken over the technology by compressing the sound to the maximum, but increasing the sound levels, so that even if you are in another room, you can hear the ad very well. With the dematerialization of music in the 2000s, sound has never been so compressed. It was from this moment that we started talking about overcompression.

“The ear is subject to a noise level that is never empty,” continues Christian Hugonnet. Today, it is easier to listen to compressed sound, because ultimately the ear no longer has to work. Over time, it becomes habit-forming and it becomes more and more difficult to hear lower-level sounds, such as the sound of footsteps or a falling leaf. »

This auditory laziness leads to all sorts of problems with fatigue and deafness, but also whistling and tinnitus.

“Tinnitus is linked to overcompression, believes Christian Hugonnet, but it can be linked to sound trauma, which particularly affects musicians and people in the music industry. Today, it is estimated that 60% of musicians have tinnitus, that is, they have permanent ringing in the ears. It is the neurons that are permanently attacked and which in turn provide permanent internal noise. »

Audiologist Sylvie Auger confirms this phenomenon. The president and founder of the Clinique du Centre-Ouest has set up a clinic for musicians to meet the demand of patients from the musical world – musicians, singers and music lovers.

And cases are occurring in younger and younger people, she points out. “There are more and more young patients. Most of the time, they lose high frequency hearing first. With all the listening devices that exist, it is a clientele at risk…”

Musicians say little about it, but they are closely affected by hearing problems. Singer-songwriter Peter Peter suffered sudden sensorineural hearing loss in one ear last fall. Although in this case, the cause is apparently of viral origin, he is sensitive to the question, especially since he only has one good ear left…

“Losing your hearing is traumatic for a musician,” he tells us. It made me lose my confidence for a while. Especially since I now have a tinnitus problem. Even though, in my case, the music did not cause my hearing loss, I take precautions. »

Peter Peter, who lived in France for a while, explains that in many rooms the consoles are equipped with decibel readers. “Beyond a certain threshold, it blocks. I think it is still well managed in France. At first we have the reflex to say to ourselves that it is boring, but in the end, it is a question of public health. »

To avoid being drawn into a spiral, experts agree on one thing: you have to reduce the time you are exposed to sound.

“We also need, according to Mr. Hugonnet, more breaks in the music. We must tend towards music that breathes. In the 1960s, 1970s, compression was still under control, but today it feels like goose-feeding. Music has lost its nuances, even in classical music. »

Sylvie Auger agrees. “We need sound rest. I also recommend that musicians use filtered plugs [by decibels] and those who give performances use stage monitors, to reduce the sound that is projected from the stage to the hall to control loudness. which goes to their ears. Because combining the sound of the room with the music played on stage, it does a lot. »

The audiologist also suggests that musicians wear noise-canceling earplugs or headphones between performances, such as at a bar or on a tour bus, as a way to “rest” their ears.

Today, one in four people has hearing problems.

Christian Hugonnet’s team is currently working on a label with Universal, the Hearing Institute and the Institute for Acoustic/Music Research and Coordination (IRCAM) to define objective sound quality criteria in order to avoid excessive compression. This work should be presented in 2024.