The Loudness War

We are a somewhat musical family. Both my wife and I played instruments growing up, my daughter currently excels in playing the piano, and I am a self-proclaimed audiophile. I love listening to music. In my teens, I joined both Columbia House and BMG music’s monthly music subscription. For about $20 a month, I was introduced to new music when the monthly CDs arrived in my mailbox. Some of the songs were good, some not so good, but most expanded my horizons and have allowed me to enjoy all varieties of music. My collection now includes every genre from classical to metal to country to bubblegum.

A while ago, my wife was teaching a lesson on music appreciation to the youth in our church, and during her research she ran across a new trend in the music world that some have dubbed the loudness war. If you haven’t heard of this phenomenon, it is the trend of removing all dynamics from music and cranking all levels to max for the entire duration of the song.

My wife and I love the theatre. We try to go a few times a year. This year, for instance, we’re going to Broadway Across America’s production of Wicked. We’ve seen it before and it is easily in our top three favorite plays! And when you go to the theater, it’s all about dynamics; some parts of the songs are quieter and then the music swells and the chorus booms and the experience is magical. This is the power of dynamics.

When I was in piano lessons as a kid, my teacher made me focus on dynamics all the dang time.I have been singing in choirs since my childhood and every choir director has pounded that home as well… work on dynamics. There is a reason composers use those little lines, the effect is awesome. However, big music labels have since done away with dynamics. 

This can most easily experienced in “remasters” of music by popular artists. If you rip a song from a album that came out in the  70s or 80s (the farther back you go, the more noticeable), and then download the “remastered” mp3 from Amazon or iTunes, you can open both files in a tool like Audacity and you’ll see how during the remastering process, they’ve gone ahead and cranked up the gain everywhere.

The only place where the loudness war hasn’t struck is in the, aforementioned, theatre. Sure, you can’t muck with the gain during a live performance, but the dynamics generally remain mostly untouched on the soundtrack, so if you go to Amazon and download the original production of Les Miserables, Wicked, Sweeney Todd or even The Lion King, you’ll be able to experience music with most of the dynamics still in tact.