From many sources I understand that strong disturbances can destroy hair cells in the cochlea.

  1. Does the sound damage always counts simply as the number of decibels recieved by the ear? E.g., if you listen to music in the train and you have to play it louder to hear it clearly?

  2. Is therefore a one-shot of noise less damaging? I.e., hair cells are not as disturbed?

  3. How long would you have to listen to the 120 dB music to lose your hearing? What is the healthy limit per day (how fast do the hair cells recover)?

  4. Could it also affect your balance (since it is managed by the same organ)?

  • $\begingroup$ Nice question +1. However, I do not understand two aspects: Which sources say that earbuds cause more damage? And more importantly, what is "disponsable" noise? $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 1:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AliceD From English sources I found arguments talking about dangerous bacteria, so I asked different way. $\endgroup$
    – Probably
    Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 8:37

1 Answer 1


First off, there are many flavors of decibels, as it is a relative measure. For the sake of clarity I assume you are talking dB sound pressure level, or dB SPL, which is a unit of sound pressure relative to a standard sound pressure of 20 µPa and widely used.

  1. The damaging effects depend on the sound pressure received by the ear. Whether this is a compound signal or a single source doesn't matter. Like whether you crash your car against a wall at 80 mph, or head's on against a truck both travelling at 40 mph - it doesn't really matter. It's the mechanical energy transferred to the hair cells that counts.
  2. A one-shot noise... I don't really understand what you're aiming at, but as said above, it's the raw sound pressure that counts. Further, prolonged exposure is definitely more damaging than a short exposure. However, when the sound pressure is strong enough, e.g. a bomb blast which lasts just a fraction of a second, hearing can still be permanently lost provided the sound level is high enough.
  3. According to the Ear Center of Greensboro, a rule of thumb is that the maximal safe exposure to sound of 100 dB is half an hour, and for every added 5 dB that time is cut in half. Thus, for 120 db that would add up to 7.5 minutes before permanent damage occurs. The safe loudness limit per day has primarily been established in terms of maximum sound levels for occupational exposures (i.e., sound exposure for 5 days per week, 8 hours per day). Likely it is dependent on where you live, but here in Australia, the Government has set the safe occupational limit to 85 dBA. The dB(A) is a weighted unit of loudness that is corrected for the hearing sensitivity of the human ear.
  4. The labyrinth of the inner ear is a system of interconnected chambers and canals. The fluids in the cochlea (responsible for hearing) and vestibular system (responsible for balance) are indeed interconnected (fig. 1).

earInner ear structures
Fig. 1. The ear (upper panel) and structures of the inner ear (lower panel). Source: Washington University.

However, sounds enter the inner ear via the tympanic membrane that connects with low impedance to the cochlea, but there is no direct connection to the vestibular system. Hence, only very loud sounds may affect balance, but that are likely accompanied by mechanical blasts that will physically damage the delicate inner ear structures. Loud music of 120 dB will not damage the vestibulum.

  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I just got unsettled one more time: Is there a difference in music damage between listening music on 120db and in a calm room? $\endgroup$
    – Probably
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 12:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Probably - I don't understand the question. If you mean whether background noise adds to the damage, then yes. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Christaan sorry, I meant: Is there a difference in music damage between listening music on 120db in a loud place and in a calm room? Pretty much the opposite, if the music damage adds to the background. $\endgroup$
    – Probably
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Probably - You have to measure the sound level. In principle, sound adds. So music+background > music. Higher level means more damage. But depending on the levels $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 6:31

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