New York, NY (April 16, 2011) – It’s not sex in the city but noise in the city that causes problems for many Broadway performers and opera stars. Dr. Jamie Koufman, a medical doctor who specializes in the care of singers and actors, reports that city noise is a common cause of voice damage. “Every year on April 16th, we celebrate ‘World Voice Day’ to call attention to the human voice and to the seriousness of voice problems—you don’t know how important your voice is until it’s gone,” says Dr. Koufman, Director of the Voice Institute of New York.

Dr. Koufman just completed a study “Determinants of noise level and noise level cycle in Manhattan bars and restaurants.”  She and her research group measured the noise levels in decibels (dBs) in different establishments and environments in New York City. And here’s the thing about the dB (noise) scale—it is logarithmic, which means that 70 dB is ten times as loud as 60 dB, and 80 dB (screaming) is ten times louder than 70 dB. For most people, a sustained noise level of 80-85 dB is the threshold when noise becomes uncomfortable, even unbearable.

New York Noise Facts in Common Environments, Places, and Situations (Measured in dBs)

Ambient noise in a very quiet apartment (no TV on)                              30-40 dB
Quiet one-on-one conversation (“confidential voice”) 2 people           40-50 dB
Television on, in a home (depending on how loud you like it)             50-65 dB
Quiet, Romantic with table-cloths and rugs-on-floor restaurant          55-65 dB
Moderately noisy, hustle-n-bustle New York bar/restaurant                 65-75 dB
Very Noisy, packed-with young-people in their 20s, bar                        75-90 dB
Busy New York street noise (including busses, trucks, etc.)                60-90 dB
Two noisy trains entering 42nd Street Station at the same time          90-95 dB

Most of the time, we talk to each other at about 55-75 dB, but when we get in a noisy environment, we can easily crank up our volume to 80-90 dB. However, at that level, voice fatigue and strain can set in, and vocal cord damage can occur. Nowadays, many trendy New York Bars and clubs maintain a steady ambient noise level of 80-85 dB.

What are the factors that make a bar, club, or restaurant noisy? Young people! People under 30-years of age can scream at each other all night long without tiring out. Yes, they are louder than older people and they have more endurance. Then there is background music. Many bartenders keep turning the music volume up and up as more people come in. Thus, the ambient noise escalates all night until everyone is screaming. Finally, there is the “hardness” of the physical environment. Having a stone floor and metal ceiling, like some places downtown in the Meat Packing District, makes for an echo chamber. The longer sound can reverberate, the more the noise level builds. This is why a big group is less noisy outside where there is no roof overhead. Outside the sound doesn’t reverberate.

If your voice is important to you—say you are a young singer or actor just starting out—don’t take a job as a waiter or bartender at the trendiest and noisiest bar/restaurant in your city, as the next morning when you go to your important audition, your voice may be raspy, hoarse, and not its best. By the way, the I-Phone has an App SPL Meter that displays noise in dBs. This App is great to help you pick restaurants and monitor noise. For most restaurant diners over age 40, a noise level of more than 70-75 dB is more than a desirable level. By the way, you can always ask your server or bartender to turn down the music or even move you to a quieter table.

Finally, we have observed an interesting “noise level cycle.” In places packed with people, it gets louder and louder until some people just give up; then the noise level drops, unconsciously people who were yelling, adjust their voice volumes downward so that the room does get quiet(er) for a while. After a short period of less noise, noise starts to escalate again as people complete with nearby neighbors. Thus, even in a noisy establishment, the noise level cycles usually every 2-5 minutes, with a high/low variation of up to 20 dB. This is worth knowing if you have a voice or hearing problem, because you can choose to wait for a lull (low point) before speaking your piece.

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