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New Ways of Seeing the Music We Can't Stand Hearing

New Ways of Seeing the Music We Can't Stand Hearing
Photo by Marissa Sendejas

Maria Ferrero loves music and she loves it ear-splittingly, bone-rattlingly, face-meltingly loud. She’s so hellbent on going to 11 she’s devoted her career to it as president and CEO of Adrenaline PR. Her New Jersey-based public relations firm specializes in promoting heavy metal acts like Lamb of God and Motorhead, which famously vowed to be “everything louder than everyone else.”

“I’m not a sociologist but everyone, I feel, has the spirit of rebellion in their heart. We all need an outlet and I feel loud music is an amplification, no pun intended, of that spirit,” Ferrero said. “Heavy metal music to me is the loudest music. That and the opera and some people actually consider symphony to be loud. But, for me, loud music is heavy metal. It stems from rock and roll which again comes from that rebellious spirit.

“I always say heavy metal is like the stepchild of music because it’s extra. It’s extra loud, it’s extra raucous, it’s extra raw and it’s extra it-doesn’t-give-a-fuck. It’s not gonna be attached to results, it’s not gonna be attached to what impacts it makes because it’s that loud – it doesn’t give a fuck. And there’s freedom in that,” she said.

Ferrero favors loud music because it stokes positive and empowering feelings in her. A lot of us choose our favorite music this way. But, sometimes the music we enjoy doesn’t start as an emotional preference but as an uncontrollable, physiological response to the music we actually dislike. The sounds of silence we can’t stand, the metal health that really does drive us mad. Certain tones, rhythms and patterns can subconsciously send certain listeners spiraling into feelings and even acts of irritation and angst.

Maria Ferrero likes it loud
Maria Ferrero likes it loud
Photo by Maria Ferrero

Once, I pitched a story to a music editor and mentioned how the artist’s soothing voice and the muted tones of their songs could soothe the savage beast. I got a note from the editor which read, “Some of us hate soothing music. During all three of my pregnancies I had to leave the room when the group got together for Lamaze lessons and they had us listen to so-called soothing music. It increased my tension because I disliked it so much. I don't think I'm the only person who doesn't want to listen to whale sounds or waves rolling in to shore. Instead, I get less tense listening to rock and roll with a beat. That's what makes me relax.”

When music becomes the proverbial fingernails to our chalkboard brains, it might be due to decreased sound tolerance, an umbrella term for various forms of sound sensitivity, according to Dr. Julie Prutsman. Prutsman runs Sound Relief Hearing Center, a Colorado-based audiology clinic with locations across the state and in Arizona. She’s a third-generation audiology professional with more than 20 years in the business.

As fate would have it, Prutsman has tinnitus, probably from attending so many concerts in her younger days, she reasons. She says she’s uncomfortable with sounds like the referee’s whistle when she watches her son’s middle school basketball games or the starting gun at her daughter’s swim meets. Without earplugs, those sounds cause her tinnitus to spike. The thing is, there are all sorts of triggers for various forms of decreased sound tolerance and some are musical in nature. That means there are sometimes clinical reasons listeners may not enjoy certain types of music.

“Hyperacusis is the first level of decreased sound tolerance and if it goes on long enough or starts to really become a pain response and a conditioned reflex, like a knee jerk response to sudden loud sounds, it can develop into misophonia. Misophonia is a severe response, a severe reaction of disgust and anger almost to sounds where you definitely want to flee away from that sound source,” Prutsman said.

She says the idea is to keep people from escalating from a level of annoyance into misophonia. It takes a very nuanced, practiced, therapeutic approach, though.

Dr. Julie Prutsman explained the clinical reasons some listeners might dislike certain music
Dr. Julie Prutsman explained the clinical reasons some listeners might dislike certain music
Photo by Tommer Collier, courtesy of Sound Relief Hearing Center

“These are subconscious reflex responses of the nervous system, so it’s not like someone can just say, ‘Oh, I’m going to not react next time I hear the whistle,’ or ‘I’m going to ignore the sound that’s bothering me,’” she noted. “You can’t consciously do that because these reactions and responses are happening at the subconscious level and there’s a strong connection to the nervous system that kicks in this fight or flight response where you just want to flee, get away from it, and if you can’t it could provoke another system, the limbic system in the brain that causes an emotional trigger like anger or disgust or fear.”

We’ve all known people who bristle at the sounds of gum snapping, fingernail biting or food slurping. How is music listening most affected by decreased sound tolerance, we asked?

“I have seen patients where particular styles of music will provoke these types of responses,” Prutsman said. “Let’s take, for instance, rap music. Rap music is not my particular favorite. Again it’s because of bass, the repetitive bass type of sound that you might find in a certain genre of music like rap that can provoke – if you just hear that same beat, that same low frequency sound repeated over and over again in a song – it can get that whole nervous system reaction to want to flee. Or, in cases when my son wants to play music that I can’t stand, I’ll say, ‘This is my vehicle – I’m turning it off.’

“Music can definitely evoke those negative responses when it’s a certain type of signal that someone has previously labeled as negative or annoying, disturbing. Again, it’s happening at the subconscious level so out of nowhere someone could have a response that doesn’t seem appropriate for the situation, where you want to say to them, ‘Calm down, it’s okay, it’s just music, what’s the problem?’ and they say, ‘Oh, I can’t stand it. I have to get out of here.’ Generally speaking, that would occur more so with someone that already has hyperacusis.”

“Today, I think what’s loud for a lot of people is rap, because it’s extra raw. It’s loud, it’s in your face. Who can deny Lizzo? Or who can deny Cardi B with ‘WAP?’” Ferrero said, speaking again to emotional preference versus physiological response. “That’s too loud for me but some people, they need that. They need that freedom, they need that outlet, they need to let it out. To me, that’s what loud music is. It’s free-spirited, rebellion, outlet.”

Ferrero’s current roster doesn’t feature rap acts, but it spotlights artists which are loud in decibels and spirit. She gets to work with her favorite band, Lamb of God, which hopes to return to the road with Megadeath next year. She’s excited for fans to hear Tetrarch, newly signed to Napalm Records and a group of “fiercely independent kids from Georgia who moved to L.A. with a dream and they’re living it now. And they don’t listen to anybody, they’re doing it on their own terms, they’re doing it their own way,” she said. She also is promoting a special 40th anniversary box set of Motorhead’s classic album Ace of Spades, due at the end of October.

“Think about that. If it’s 40 years since Ace of Spades came out, you figure people anywhere from 15 to 25 were listening to that. So, people who were fans of Motorhead are in their fucking sixties right now. They’re cranking Motorhead. Especially during this pandemic, we need extra outlet.”

Speaking of the pandemic, Prutsman said it has had an effect on the clinic’s patients.

“Number one is tinnitus for us, ringing in the ear, that goes hand in hand with music for us because so many people have loud noise exposure because of concerts or being a musician or being in a band, but also more recently with COVID, the stress of COVID and the stress of change to our lives, so many people are calling with complaints of hyperacusis and hypersensitivity to sound right now. We’re actually seeing a spike in it and I think it’s a direct result of the stressful times we’re living in, unfortunately - the fear of the unknown, are we going to have to wear masks forever and what’s going on with COVID. It’s interesting how changes in our culture and our society can amplify these problems,” she said.

While some signals in music can be severely disturbing to some listeners, there are clinical approaches to tuning down the agitated responses to what hypersensitive listeners hear, Prutsman said.

“There’s a severe, reflex response that’s a conditioned, subconscious loop in their brain that cannot let it go and cannot just say ‘ignore it.’ That’s really where sound therapy has to help them break those connections and extinguish, stop and block that reflex response,” she said. “It’s fascinating how the brain, the auditory system and the nervous system are all really interconnected when we’re talking about these types of symptoms. Really, they’re symptoms, they’re not a sign of any serious health condition, they’re symptoms that need to be addressed so they don’t cause long term problems for that person, where they feel they have to stay home in a controlled environment.”

As fate would have it, Prutsman said music plays an essential role in sound therapy. She took that “physician heal thyself” adage literally and used music to reduce her own tinnitus to a background noise. Music can calm the nervous system and re-wire the brain, she said. For her, “zen music,” does the trick, instrumental tunes with bells and chimes you might hear in a spa, but never on Maria Ferrero’s playlist. This approach is especially useful in tinnitus patients because music one can passively listen to in the background can distract the brain away from tinnitus hyperactivity. That sort of therapy could also work for those who find certain types of music annoying or irritating and the music doesn’t have to be soft, in those instances, just whatever calms the nervous system.

“The same principals apply because, again, this is a nervous system response where you get in this panic mode. You want to flee, you want to get away and stop the sound. Well, we know, as you are very well aware I’m sure, that music impacts the brain most globally. When you look at functional MRIs of people’s brains when they’re listening to music, it can really stimulate all centers of our brain. And, if it’s calming and soothing and we like it, it tends to decrease the hyperactivity of some of our brain systems, like the limbic system, the emotional part of the brain and the fight or flight response of the autonomic nervous system,” Prutsman said.

“Calm the nervous system down, desensitize this person to these trigger sounds, so expose them to the trigger sounds but in a control-phase format and gradually show them that they can be exposed to those types of sounds again and not have the same conditioned reflex,” Prutsman said of the approach. “It is a process of desensitizing them to those sounds by using a combination of directive counseling by someone with experience and using a calming, soothing source of sound to really reverse those reactions.”

Prutsman said anyone with an interest in these matters can find helpful resources via ata.org, the American Tinnitus Association’s website. And Ferrero – who would agree with Dr. Prutsman to seek out earplugs at the next metal concert you attend - took the last word on all things louder than everything else.

“Loud music,” she said, “is a lifestyle and an attitude.”

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