There I was playing a piece of music from Beethoven to my little music students. Classical music tends to have lots of dynamics. And in this case the melody is played softly a couple of times with the third time rising in volume and really popping forth for the climax.
Yet the climax just didn’t pop this time. It was like nothing. The only thing you could tell was that more instruments were playing and the overall timbre had changed. Damn….what a letdown. Well my students left and were happy with a great music class. Yet I pondered why the music just didn’t pop this time.
The one difference is that I had the volume on my amp (playing the Beethoven piece) set lower than usual. And in a couple of minutes I figured out why at a lower volume the dynamics just won’t work.
There’s a little math here, but its simple. Loudness is typically measured in dB or decibels. Normal conversation is about 60dB. A loud lawnmower is about 90 dB. A very loud rock concert is about 120dB.
So if you have a recording of music and the loud parts are let’s say 10% louder than a softer part, we can do the math.
If you play a song at a low volume of 50dB and the loud part jumps up by 10% you get a decibel increase of 5dB. So now the music is 55dB. Not a huge increase but noticeable.
If you play the same song at a louder volume of 80dB and the loud part jumps up by 10%, you get a decibel increase of 8dB. Now the music is at 88dB. Notice that decibel increase is bigger in this example as compared to the other one.
In my first example I had the volume knob of my amp low, so when the music part got louder I only heard a 5dB increase in loudness. But if I had my volume knob set higher, then when the music got louder I would hear an 8dB increase in loudness. Indeed my perception would be that the louder part of the song really popped out!
So if you listen to music at a very low volume, it is probable that you are missing some very important dynamics which the songwriter/producer really thought would help make the music more interesting.
And last but not least…..as humans we think everything sounds better when its louder. Soooooo there’s that.