Losing the Loudness War

Losing the Loudness War

Believe it or not, the FCC sets volume controls on television and radio broadcasts. The loudest moment in the program determines the level at which the entire program is presented, and no single sound is allowed to exceed this highest level. For decades, advertisers have created the sensation of increased volume during their spots through compressing the decibel range of their commercials so that this loud volume level is maintained throughout. This is why we perceive the advertisements to be louder than the program as a whole—the commercial’s talking voices resonate at a nearly equal level to the explosions in the program itself.

Many music producers have seized on this phenomenon and have tried to keep their artists’ songs at this high volume level. By pushing their volume meters constantly into the yellow, they hope to make their tracks pop out of the radio grind. As more and more producers have caught onto this trick, they have ended up battling over every last decibel in the loudness war. Of course, when all music is equally loud, listeners simply adjust the volume to make everything equally quiet (or loud, depending on their tastes). Thus, it would appear that the best way to stand out on radio today might be to start a track very softly.

But here I’d like to move the discussion towards another type of loudness war. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, accounts of orchestra concerts would often discuss the moving power of the ensemble. People of those eras had never heard any musical sound at anything approaching the volume produced by an orchestra with full brass and percussion sections. Much of the effect felt by these audiences was directly attributed to the awe they experienced in the presence of such a massive and well-shaped sound. Early amplification technology simply could not compete with 100+ musicians playing their hearts out on stage, although it did lead to the rise of the “crooner” singing phenomenon, epitomized by such luminaries as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. The electronic enhancements allowed for a feeling of intimacy that was simply impossible for a singer attempting to acoustically project over the sound of a large ensemble.

The orchestra maintained its place at the heart of musical society through the first half of the 20th century, as it continued to reign supreme as the grandest possible sound. Conductors like Leonard Bernstein were popular figures, famous in a way that is simply unimaginable to today’s youth. But in the 1960s, sound enhancement technology began to improve exponentially. First, Marshall created his stacked 100-watt amplifiers, and then gradually, impressive speakers wended their way from concert halls into the home. Now, a remarkably small investment of money and space can allow anyone to create noise in their home (or car) that far exceeds the volume level of an orchestra, with sound quality that many people cannot distinguish from the original. As we all know, even the most cash-strapped neophyte pre-teen bands are able to pump music towards their audiences so loud that it makes an orchestra seem weak and quaint by comparison.

To me, this appears to be the real reason for the decline in the status of the orchestra and its offshoots within contemporary society. Not only does the orchestral sound no longer awe most audiences, but the quietness of the acoustical concert experience leads to many of the traditions that can alienate new attendees. No one cares if you open a candy wrapper at an industrial rock show, or even if you scream at the top of your lungs. But the slightest of noises—even someone breathing through their nose—can completely disrupt a chamber music concert experience for people several rows away from the perpetrator. However, when we amplify orchestral instruments, they lose the beautiful roundness of their tone, and they cease to sound like the impressive music-machines that took centuries to perfect.

This loudness war should make us question the nature of our music and how we can compete within an amplified society. If not the volume, what is it that makes orchestras worth preserving? How can we keep our art growing and vital when they no longer present the most expansive musical sound ever heard?

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3 thoughts on “Losing the Loudness War

  1. TJOG

    Mr. Smooke’s posts are always stimulating and enlightening, but somehow I can’t believe that the recent (and admittedly dramatic) demise of classical orchestras can be chalked up primarily to the relatively modest decibel level with which that music is usually associated.

    Has the prestige of orchestral music really been associated in any fundamental way with its volume level? Military bands of any decent size have always been able to match or surpass the volume of the typical orchestra and yet those bands (popular as they’ve been, especially in the early 20th century) have not really proven to be a threat to the existence of symphony orchestras.

    Electronic amplification has been a big part of our lives since the 1960s, as Mr. Smooke points out, and the fact that a rock band could, from that point on, out-duel an entire orchestra in terms of volume was addressed by more than one commentator even in the early stages of this revolution. But the fact that the orchestra was no longer the biggest kid on the block did not cause an immediate defection of the audience for classical music. The decline in interest in classical orchestra music may well have picked up speed at that point, but nothing occurred then that was nearly so dramatic as the recent nosedive that interest in orchestral music has taken.

    So, if not a question of the decreasing ability of the orchestra to impress with its volume and the quality of its sound, or at least not primarily that, what is responsible for the decline in the prestige and popularity of orchestral concerts? I don’t think it’s possible to pin it down to a single root cause. Popular culture has been increasingly promoted by the media in the last several decades while public education has almost completely given up on trying to “privilege” the art music tradition. There is no longer much of a link between the consumption of classical music and perceived social status of a given individual.

    Mr. Smooke also brings into the argument the undesirability (to some) of typical concert formality in which the listener is expected to sit quietly while experiencing the music. Is this a problem? Apparently it is, increasingly so for some observers. We are frequently reminded by commentators that the general formality of the situation—the idea that you must be quiet, the fact that you should probably “dress up” for the occasion, the very notion that the orchestra members “dress up” for the occasion—all these things apparently rankle modern audiences, especially that part of it under the age of 60. Are these really the reasons that so many people appear to have turned away from orchestral concerts of classical music?

    I don’t know. Some new music venues have been successful to some extent because they’ve gone out of their way not to commit the “traditional” sins, e.g., performing in overly formal settings, projecting overly reverential atmospheres etc. So maybe there is something to be said for shifting the style of presentation for classical music, and maybe this represents an opening for new music, a way to make a dent in the larger public, including those who used to support traditional classical music.

    But my guess is that it has less to do with volume or any of these other things and more to do with our increasing unwillingness to work hard and focus our attention in a “recreational” context (which is how most people perceive the listening experience). Listening to classical music (traditional or new) takes some work and focus of attention. It would be absurd to say that human beings in the early 21st century have lost the ability to do that because they clearly continue to focus perfectly well at other times in their lives. But are large numbers of people willing to do it in order to secure a more refined level of enjoyment in a musical setting? The answer for the present seems to be that—in the musical sphere– there are fewer and fewer. The horrible problems faced by so many orchestras is one manifestation of that, but the problem is deeper. But of course unexpected shifts in cultural patterns will continue to occur and it is always too early to give up hope.

  2. dB

    I’ve always primarily attributed the decline of interest in orchestral performance to the rise of the recording industry. The business plan of the modern orchestra is that of a repertory company, providing regular performances of tried and true classics. As recordings of those orchestras playing those works became available, the question of attending concerts shifted from the value of the music itself to the value of this particular performance, or that of live performance in general.

    At the same time, recordings of popular music were being made available. Others here have already mentioned the stuffiness associated with orchestral music, but I think another reason people have shied away from orchestral performance is the lack of a clear personality for the audience to connect with. An orchestra is made up of several dozens of performers; even under the baton of a notable conductor or behind a renowned soloist, the orchestra is relatively faceless when compared to the crooners that dominated the early popular music recordings. Moreover, orchestral performance is so collaborative that it can be difficult to know exactly with whom any connection would be. The composer? The conductor? The timpanist? None of that confusion is associated with those early crooners, even though there were still composers, conductors, and timpanists.

    The next logical step was to performers who also wrote and performed all of their own music. In this model, there is no confusion about creative voice. For many, this clarity of connection made popular music much more appealing than classical. Meanwhile, classical music supporters were propagating the notion of a cultural binary–that it was impossible to find value in both classical and pop music.

    The result was almost an entire generation ignoring classical performance in favor of pop music. What values weren’t passed on to that generation couldn’t be passed on to the next. I believe that the rapid decline in orchestral audience size is a direct result of this: the last generation raised on classical music is dying. Anecdotally, almost everyone in my grandparents’ peer group were season ticket-holders for the local orchestra whereas only a handful of my parents’ peer group were. To stay alive, orchestras are now clamoring to teach people the value of classical music, a lesson that used to be learned at home.

  3. smooke

    great discussion!
    Dear TJOG and dB:

    Thank you both for your insightful thoughts on this matter (and I apologize for my delay in responding).

    First, TJOG, yes, I am clearly guilty of oversimplification. And yet, the correlation appears so clear and (to my mind) underdiscussed. I also agree that the promotion of the popular over the artistic is a clear issue here as well. Frank Oteri’s recent post on how the top 1% of music sold accounts for over 80% of all dollars earned certainly gives pause in that regard. And the advent of Top40 radio in the early 1950s (note how the timing of this also coincides with the rise of R&B and many of the other issues mentioned) did spark a sea change in how artistic v. commercial concerns were valued in music.

    Then dBs thoughts about the confusion as to exactly who is responsible for the music is quite interesting and an issue that I had never before considered. The collaborative element in the orchestra should be a selling point, but I can see how the confusion as to exactly who is the artistic voice might be a distancing element.

    I greatly appreciate hearing your thoughts on this!



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