Learn about loudness. How some sounds can appear louder than others.

And how it can be all a trick of the mind!

What Is Loudness?

Loudness is a way of describing the volume of one sound, relative to another.

In traditional notationloudness (or dynamics) is indicated by symbols below the musical stave (p or ).

When describing sounds outside of this tradition, we can say that sounds range from being quiet to loud.

Composition Tip

Using a mixture of loud and quiet sounds within your compositions will add depth to your piece.

You can also change the loudness of sounds over time, increasing the volume to bring sounds ‘forward’ and decreasing the volume to drop sounds ‘backwards’.

A careful composer will always balance the loudness of their sounds, ensuring that no sounds are too loud or too quiet.

Loudness Is Relative

An interesting aspect of loudness is that it is all relative. A loud sound in a noisy place will seem less loud, than exactly the same sound in a quiet place.

How Loud Is the Clock?

The volume of the clock does not change. BUT, the relative loudness does. In the busy city environment, the clock sounds quiet compared to everything else. While in the quiet countryside, the clock sounds much louder.

Controlling Loudness

By a simple change of loudness, a type of sound can suddenly or gradually become more or less prominent against its background.

Getting Louder

Listen to the beeps as they slowly get louder against the backdrop and then fade away again. The gain has been gradually increased and then reduced again (with the help of automation).

We can affect the loudness of sounds by applying (or lowering) the gain. In this way, composers and studio engineers are able to balance the sounds in their work.

The faders on large mixing consoles are designed to give hands-on control of the loudness for many sounds at the same time.

Controlling Loudness in Compose with Sounds

Compose with Sounds has its own digital faders within the computer programme to allow you to change the relative levels of the sounds within your piece. When you see the ‘Gain Badge’ you’ll be able to change the loudness of the sound file.

Distance and Loudness

Distance, of course, also affects loudness. The closer we stand to an object that is producing sound, the louder that sound will appear to us.

This might seem obvious, but it can be very useful to think about this when composing a piece of music. Recognising this important fact can allow us work out how to produce the impression of sounds moving towards or away from us, or for sounds that are close or distant.

A loud object that is far away, may appear to sound quieter than it actually is.

For Example:

Think of an ambulance.

When it is far away, its siren sounds quiet; but the closer that it gets, the louder the siren becomes, until the ambulance directly passes you and the siren is deafening!

Static Siren

The siren is constant. It does not make more or less sound.

Moving Siren

The siren gets louder as it approaches.

Monitoring Loudness

Because we only have one pair of ears its very important that we protect them. Loud sounds can damage your ears PERMANENTLY. Once they have been damaged by loud sounds, there is no way of repairing them.

Therefore, it is really important to be able to see the volume level when working with or listening to sounds. Most music software will have a bar that displays the output level. Green is low or safe, yellow is the danger zone and red is loud. Not only will having sounds in the red level damage your hearing, but it will also cause clipping and distortion on your sounds.

You can see the level metre next to the playback controls in the Compose with Sounds transport bar.


How Does Loudness Work?

Loudness and volume are relative to the listener (a distant sound will seem quieter than equivalent closer sounds), but are also directly related to physical amplitude.

The amplitude of a wave is the distance it moves from its resting position. When objects vibrate, moving back and forth away from a resting position, they displace air. The more air that is displaced, the louder the sound will appear.

For Example:

  • A string is gently plucked. The string vibrates and moves back and forth a little bit.
  • Because the string only moves back and forth a small amount, very little air is displaced.
  • Therefore, the sound is very quiet.
  • A string is thwacked hard! The string vibrates back and forth, moving far from its resting point.
  • Because the string moves back and forth a lot, it pushes away and displaces a lot more air.
  • This higher ‘air pressure’ created by the pushing away of more air, results in a louder sound.
  • Often people talk of measuring Sound Pressure Level (SPL), which is a scientific measurement of loudness and the amount of air that is being displaced.
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