The arrival of the MP3 format in the early 1990s began a real revolution in the music industry. But musicians and sound lovers often worry about the degraded quality of so-called “compressed” music. What is it really? Decryption.
Like every year for the past 21 years, UNESCO Sound Week invites us to question our relationship to sound and, by extension, to music. Because we spend a significant amount of time listening to it. The 2023 study by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry states that we spend 20.7 hours per week listening to pieces of music. A figure that continues to increase from year to year.
Hearing health in danger?
But some worry about the impact of this listening time on our hearing health. For good reason, almost all of the songs available on streaming platforms are in MP3. This controversial audio format has the advantage of considerably reducing the weight of songs, which allows them to take up less space in the memory of our phones and computers. However, the compression process on which MP3 is based damages the music: it trims the sound spectrum by destroying the highest and lowest frequencies. This loss of quality is not always audible, especially if the compression level chosen is not very high. Despite everything, the vast majority of MP3 songs lack nuance. Their sound is less natural and precise than that of music recorded so as to be emitted on analog media (magnetic tape, vinyl, cassette, etc.).
Music lovers are therefore fleeing MP3, preferring non-destructive formats such as FLAC, APE, Alac or Hi-Res (High Resolution). However, not all electronic devices are capable of playing music recorded in these formats. Additionally, only a handful of artists offer their tracks in “lossless” compression. American-Canadian singer Neil Young tried to raise awareness among the general public of the need to be more demanding regarding the quality of recorded music by launching, in 2014, his own portable music player with very high definition sound. But this project suffered from direct competition from music streaming platforms like Tidal and Qobuz, which, at the same time, began to focus on so-called “lossless” formats, that is to say without loss or destruction of data.
The dangers of compressed music
So is MP3 unbeatable? Not necessarily. Consumers are giving more and more importance to the sound quality of the songs they listen to for very long hours, in order to preserve their hearing health. Indeed, over time, compressed sounds can have harmful repercussions on our ears. Researchers from Inserm and the Clermont-Ferrand Faculty of Medicine arrived at this observation after having 90 guinea pigs listen to music for four hours. These animals were chosen for the purposes of this study because they have a hearing system similar to ours. Some specimens were exposed to compressed tracks, and others to uncompressed tracks. The scientists noticed that guinea pigs who listened to compressed music experienced hearing fatigue at the end of the experiment, with “a decrease in auditory reflexes“, according to Essentiel Santé Magazine.
This alarming phenomenon can be explained by the fact that compressed music leaves no moment for the listener to breathe. However, the ear needs to rest, even if only for a few seconds, so as not to be overworked. Overexposure to poor quality music can eventually lead to hearing problems, especially if these songs are listened to at too high a volume. This is why a scientific committee, led by Professor Paul Avan from the Center for Research and Innovation in Human Audiology, is working, under the aegis of the UNESCO Sound Week association, to create a “sound quality” label. This will aim to guarantee listeners the absence of any excessive compression of the sound, “with a view to respecting artistic creation, musical quality, and hearing health“, as indicated in a press release.
Because there is an urgent need to act. A meta-analysis, published in 2022 in the journal BMJ Global Health, estimates that 670 million to 1.35 billion adolescents and young adults worldwide are potentially at risk of suffering from hearing problems. Blame it on risky listening practices, of course, but also on the quality of the music we have in our ears. Perhaps it is time to turn the page on MP3 to preserve our hearing.