Raising my voice against loudness

I saw Jesus Christ Superstar at Lyric Opera last week, just days before it closed Sunday. Reading critics’ overwhelmingly glowing reviews after, I was surprised that only a couple of them mentioned what I thought the production’s flaw: it was too loud. The music drowned out the lyrics.

On Chicagoland Theater Reviews Dan Zeff mentioned the volume, but not until his last paragraph: “Familiarity with Tim Rice’s lyrics will benefit the spectator. I lost many of the words to the decibel power of the rock music. . . . Excellence is excellence, even if not every word is understood.”

Many people know all the lyrics, as did the friend I was with. Jesus Christ Superstar started life back in 1970 as a “rock opera” album and has been performed in many formats and venues. What I once knew, I’d forgotten, except for Mary Magdalene’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” (At least that, being a ballad, was intelligible.) I sat at the Civic Opera House scolding myself for not having taken the time to refresh my memory beforehand.

Maybe the producers thought it wasn’t important that the words be clear because most of the audience would know them. Maybe they’re catering to a younger generation with the annual Broadway at Lyric production, for which Jesus Christ Superstar was the 2018 choice.

Maybe it’s that I’m getting old. Ironically, when Jesus Christ Superstar was released, I was a 20something whose music our elders slammed as too loud. What goes around, comes around.

It’s a scientific fact that tolerance of loudness decreases as we age. It’s not just attitudinal, it’s physical. As we age, we can develop a condition called presbycusis that diminishes the hearing of high frequencies and distorts low frequencies like the bass and drum of rock music.

This gives me an opening to complain about loudness in restaurants, an irritation I’d not blogged about before because it’s nothing new. The fact that it’s not getting any better is reason to bring it up.

I eat out as much for the conversation as for the food. It’s one way my friends and I catch up. I don’t like to keep asking, “What did you say?” I want to feel relaxed. When confronted with a deafening din, my nerves are jangled, and I don’t want to linger any longer than it takes to clean my plate.

Perhaps hastening us out is the point — restaurants want to increase turnover. I’ve heard that among many explanations for the ear-splitting sound level. There’s also modern decor, hard-surfaced, high-ceilinged, and minimalist, without sound-absorbing soft furnishings. And, again, there’s catering to a younger generation that supposedly prefers racket. Noise is considered lively, energizing, edgy. Quiet is considered deadening.

I pity the employees. I can choose not to be there. Since they’re generally of the Millennial generation, maybe they don’t mind. But what’s happening to their hearing? Repeated exposure to noise levels above 80 decibels, which is common in many restaurants these days, damages hearing.

If you google “places that are too noisy,” you’ll see that the majority of complaints are about restaurants. Other places that get complaints, including bars, sports arenas, rock concerts, stores, and even movie theaters, I don’t frequent much. But sometimes it’s unavoidable. When I’m on the Red Line and the doors open at the Jackson stop and music from the street musicians comes blaring in, I wince. When I’m giving a tour and take guests into Macy’s to see the Tiffany domed ceiling, I sometimes apologize for the assault of rock Muzak if the visitors are around my age.

The last Star Wars film was supposedly one of the loudest movies ever. That was a boast. Noise clearly appeals to some people. Retailers are reportedly turning to music to differentiate in-store shopping from the online experience.

While googling noise complaints, I read about a debate in Washington, DC, about street musicians. Some residents there said that if you want quiet, you shouldn’t live in a big city. Those on the other side said that they’re not asking to be able to hear a pin drop — just a normal volume. I’m with them.

If louder is better, where will the increasing loudness end?

I already wear hearing aids for an age-related hearing loss. I’d like to keep it from getting worse. It wasn’t until researching this post that it occurred to me to fine-tune my hearing aids in restaurants, not only lowering the volume but also adjusting the balance of treble and bass.

I’ll have to look into what else the hearing aids can do to counteract noise. I don’t think the solution should be only on the customer’s end, however. If a restaurant doesn’t accede to a request to lower the volume, that’s a restaurant I shouldn’t return to.



“Well, he’s an inconsistent hypocrite is the answer to the question. The president of the United States is.”
— Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, when asked by NPR about Trump’s differing statements about gun violence


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  • I agree with restaurant noise, My voice is low or deep to begin with I
    Do not like to yell at people to have a conversation. The next day
    I’m horse from yelling. Especially if they seat you by the wall it’s like
    A echo chamber. I too catch up with friends at restaurants, but it’s
    Difficult to have a talk with a lot of music, din..
    Thanks For mentioning.

  • I hear you, Sue.

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    JCS was painfully loud and there is no excuse for this. I loved everything about it except the volume.
    I am 68 and first noticed this problem years ago when Rent started making the rounds. For various reasons I saw three different productions in a very short time. The first in Chicago (at the Shubert?) was wonderful. The next two were horribly loud. In fact, the last was so loud I sat with my hands partially protecting my ears. There is no pleasure in this.
    Turn it down a notch or two!!

  • Thanks for letting me know I wasn't the only one.

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