There Are Scientific Reasons Your Teen Loves Loud Music

It’s not just that kids are trying to drive their parents nuts by blaring their music—though that may be a bonus.

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Jul 12, 2015· 6 MIN READ
A Wolfe has covered arts, entertainment, and politics for Good, Vice, Flaunt, and other publications.

Lillie Forteau is a happy-go-lucky Michigan teen who loves Beyoncé and streaks the front of her curly black hair with emerald green. When Lillie wants to feel pumped for a workout, she grabs her MP3 player, cranks up her mom’s ’80s pop classics, and lets the music move her. The 13-year-old says it helps her feel “more hyper, helping me run faster or play better or whatever.” Like most American teens, it’s hard for Lillie to imagine not blasting music with a past-paced beat, ear buds in place.

“It would be weird for me to run on the treadmill and not listen to music. If I listen to music, I run faster and feel better,” she says.

Lillie is not alone in her feelings of euphoria when listening to loud music. According to a Danish study published in 2014, the top three reasons teens said they listened to loud music were that they could feel and enjoy the music better, they could lose themselves in it, and they could get energy from listening to it.

The image of parents telling their teenagers to turn down the music has been around since people figured out how to play recorded music at home. But only recently have we thought to research exactly why it is that teens love the high volume, and what effects it might have on them—good and bad. Studies on a part of the ear called the sacculus may explain this consensus of good feelings and energy.

This tiny part of the inner ear, once thought to be functionless, first showed up in popular culture in the writings of Barry Blesser, an independent scholar and author of Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? In his 2009 paper “The Seductive (Yet Destructive) Appeal of Loud Music,” he shifted the scientific discussion away from figuring out how badly kids are destroying their hearing to why kids would want to do that at all.

Basically, loud music stimulates the sacculus, which has neural connections to pleasure centers in the hypothalamus. The louder the music, the more the brain releases endorphins and desires even louder music. By analyzing earlier studies dating back to 1995, Blesser found that music played over the level of 90 decibels activated the sacculus into a form of “self-stimulation” through the ear, and that the louder the music, the more it would stimulate the ear’s reflex, opening the ear canal wider to get those decibels to the sacculus.

Six years after his initial paper, Blesser said that while fMRIs (a fancy acronym for brain scans taken while administering a task) have revolutionized how we study the brain, we’re actually no closer to understanding the teenage brain on loud music. Part of it is because your parents were right all along: You could lose your hearing.

“The problem with researching this with science is that you can’t get permission, because it is damaging,” Blesser said. “You can do experiments on mice, but you can’t do them on people. Just because you could do it doesn’t mean you can do it.”

The range between when your brain activates its pleasure and when severe hearing damage occurs to the inner ear is very small, Blesser said, which may account for more studies on how teens’ hearing is damaged after they’ve already listened to music than on what happens in the brain during. But also, adults are the people conducting the tests. Their opinion matters, and Blesser says that if adults are so focused on how teens will lose their hearing, it can shut down the line of questioning about why teens are attracted to the decibels in the first place.

Loud music stimulates adults and teens in different ways. And this also depends on the type of music being played.

Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of This Is Your Brain on Music, was the first to present evidence that a person’s musical taste is imprinted at the age of 14. For parents who don’t understand how their kids could listen to what they do, Levitin’s research suggests that they might not hear the music the way their kids do, because the adult’s taste is largely already solidified.

As Levitin told the American Society of Audiology, “As an adult, the new music I hear becomes assimilated within the framework of the music I knew as a youth. So we continually add new information to our cognitive database, but we retrieve and analyze it in terms of what we already know.”

Does your kid’s music resemble your favorite Monkees album, or does it sound like your mother’s Lawrence Welk to your brain? You may not know it, but your brain is processing that information and making the decisions for you.

Add to this that adults have already lived through their teenage years, and they probably also played loud music and damaged their hearing. That literally blocks them from being able to hear the music like their kids do, with a fresh and receptive sacculus.

All of this research may also account for why music has historically been used as a weapon since as early as the Roman Empire, when hundreds of horn players disrupted the equilibrium of their enemies. Some adults may erroneously think a teen’s music is his weapon.

In the case of teenager Jordan Davis, who was gunned down by Michael Dunn for playing loud music in a gas station parking lot, Dunn had yelled at Davis to turn down his music, but Davis either didn’t hear or didn’t comply. Dunn argued that Davis’ noncompliance was aggressive. The murder trial—which became known as the “loud music case”—became the subject of the documentary 3½ Minutes, 10 Bullets. (Disclosure: TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, partnered with the Filmmaker Fund/Motto Pictures and produced the documentary in association with Lakehouse Films and Actual Films.)

This tragedy may also beg the question of why we’ve spent time researching why a teen’s brain listens to loud music and not why an adult’s first instinct is to punish youth for the impulse, especially since an adult’s learning has already been imprinted on the brain while teens are still “pruning” synapses (receptors).

According to research from Jay Giedd of the National Institute for Mental Health, teens have an excess of neurons and synapses, so they are basically feeling and sensing everything more intensely. As their brains grow, these receptors are pruned back like a tree, solidifying certain connections and weakening others based around learning. So if a teen listens to loud music repeatedly, those connections will become stronger, and the teen will want more music. Experts liken the way teen brains learn to addiction—repeated exposure rewires the brain.

Of course, it’s not just the mechanics of how ears and the brain work that matters when teens are choosing thudding rap music or blaring punk rock. The hormonally charged decisions of newly developed personal belief systems—antiauthority, pro–good times, inwardly reflective—are wrapped up in these choices. The choice to listen to loud music that also represents how teens view the world is almost impulsive, not even a choice. Evidence that the teen brain’s white matter has not fully developed even led researchers to find that teenagers scientifically have difficulty with impulse control.

In Beatriz Luna’s groundbreaking “anti-saccade” studies—saccade refers to a type of reflexive eye movement controlled by the prefrontal cortex—she asked children, teens, and adults to ignore a flickering light on a screen while tracking their eyes and, therefore, their ability to overcome the impulse. The children succeeded at a rate of 50 percent, teens at 70, and adults at 90, backing up fMRI research of the prefrontal cortex and its slower development into adulthood. In the teen brain especially, she found that there’s a kind of struggle going on—good versus evil—because the prefrontal cortex is more developed than a child’s, but teens’ need for immediate gratification is still battling their control.

So imagine a brain that is constantly seeking pleasure, being bombarded with sensory information, and having trouble suppressing impulses. It’s chaos. Loud music seems to be the answer for all these problems.

Clara Ko, a music therapist in Los Angeles, thinks teens use loud music as a kind of pain reliever.

“Listening to loud music may provide comfort or distraction to a constant process of growth,” Ko said. “I would compare it to a music therapy technique in pain and symptom management.”

According to Ko, one of the best tools in our arsenal for pain management—or teen management—is simple distraction, forcing the brain to take in other stimuli.

“Our central nervous system takes all stimulatory senses and sends them to the brain to process them. So when someone is in extreme pain, the CNS is busy delivering the pain signals to the brain,” she said. “What we do as music therapists is play music to match the client’s breathing pattern and heartbeat, to distract the CNS from taking only pain signals, widening the path for the musical stimulation in the CNS so it can be divided—or distracted—from pain.”

Ko would never advise a teen to listen to ear-damaging music, but she understands why they would.

Lillie, who listens to music through her ear buds for 60 or 70 percent of the day, by her estimate, says she even relaxes to a meditation track when she’s falling asleep to help tame her anxiety.

In 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation found teens listened to music an average of two hours 19 minutes per day, but estimates place that number much higher now with the proliferation of streaming services. Add to that research that music is now produced to be louder than ever before, and it can be frustrating for parents looking to connect with their kids when their kids literally can’t hear them.

But all this research suggests the best way to communicate with your teen is actually through music, with adults sharing their own musical tastes early on in their child’s development. Because no matter how many studies you cite on hearing loss, your teen’s brain might not listen. And that might be OK.

In Lillie’s words, “I need two things. Music is that second thing. My distraction from everything else.”

That “everything else” can be pretty painful. Loud music as a “second thing” may still be preferable to the alternatives. But make no mistake: Teens are highly sensitive beings fighting an uphill battle in their own brains.