Volume, Loudness, and More Cowbell (Or: Why Commercials are So Darned Loud)

eHow Tech Blog

A cartoon showing a loud TV commercialIt’s Friday night, your work week is over, and you’re ready to hit the couch for some lazy television watching.  You stumble upon an old episode of The Office and settle in.  After a few laughs, your eyes start drooping, so you give in to the fuzzy warm feeling and drift off to sleep.

…you’re floating on a raft in Half Moon Bay in Kauai sipping a Mai Tai and basking in the sun. Suddenly someone’s yelling loudly. In fact, they’re yelling at you!  Looking for the source, you start flipping around in your raft.  Your Mai Tai spills, you lose your balance and… BAM!

You’re now on the floor of your living room, foggy, tired and kind of irked by the noise that awoke you.  And guess what?  That person is still yelling, but now you know where it’s coming from.  It’s a commercial. The announcer is so loud it not only woke you up, but your dog is howling in pain as well.  How the heck did the TV get so loud?  It wasn’t that loud when you fell asleep. Soon enough you piece it all together; the commercial’s volume is much louder than that of the TV show. You and millions of others have already complained about this exact problem, which is why a bill called the CALM Act was passed in 2010. The CALM (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation) Act forbids the sound of commercials from being louder than the TV program they accompany. In other words, the commercial announcer shouldn’t wake you up from your Hawaiian slumber.

This sounds like a great solution.  In theory. But it’s very hard to implement because it deals with two complex audio concepts: volume and loudness. Let’s find out what the difference actually is.

What is volume?

There are many ways to explain volume, so we’re going to do it the easy way. Let’s discuss how the human ear hears musical instruments.

Let’s say in you’re in your backyard playing guitar for a friend who is standing five feet in front of you. He can hear your guitar just fine.  Now your friend moves twenty-five feet away. If you continue to play at the same volume, do you think it will sound the same to your friend?  Probably not.  He’s further away and now you must play at a higher volume, for him to feel like he can still hear your guitar the same way. You see, volume is actually a perceived experience based on how close you are to source.  The closer you are to the source of the sound, the louder the volume is. And conversely, the further away you are the softer the volume is. It’s not rocket science but it does explain why front row seats at rock shows are so awesome!

Guitar in the backyard

What is loudness?

Let’s say you have two musicians standing in front of you.  The person on the left plays bass guitar, a very low sounding instrument.  The person on the right plays cowbell, a very high sounding instrument. Sometimes we use the word frequency to describe the lowness or highness of sound.  The bass has a lower frequency than the cowbell.

What’s interesting about the human ear is that it’s not a perfect listening tool.  (We know this from experience. As a parent, we notice our kids hear the words “dessert” from across the house but can’t hear “brush your teeth” when just five feet in front of us.)

In fact, our ears actually do hear frequencies differently.  We hear higher frequencies, like the cowbell, more easily than lower frequencies like the bass.  So if both musicians were standing in front of you, the bass would have to be at a much louder volume than the cowbell for you to experience their sounds as being equally loud. You may know the joke about a musician requesting “more cowbell” in a song.  Well now you know one of the great ironies of that joke: It’s almost impossible to have “less cowbell” unless you remove it completely.  That frequency can be played at such a soft volume but our ear will still experience it’s “loudness” crystal clear.

Low and High Frequencies


Getting back to the world of TV and commercials, you can see how tricky it is to regulate loudness.  If you were watching a TV show that had a lot of low frequency sound, you would have to turn up the volume quite a bit to hear it properly.  But once the show ends and the commercial comes on you can count on the announcer’s voice, which is a higher frequency sound, to seem a lot louder to you.

TV companies are so afraid of getting fined for loud commercials that there is a new trend happening.  The other night I was watching America’s Got Talent (go ahead laugh at me) and when the commercial came on I couldn’t hear it!  So I turned up the volume. Can you guess what happened next?  When the TV show came back on it was so loud it practically tossed me off my couch!

Image credits: Jonathan Grossman

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