Voceteo: music to our ears or noxious to our brains?

Francisco J. Torres-Torres • 2021 Science Communication Series Cohort

Image accessed here. (El Arte y Deporte Del Voceteo : PuertoRico, n.d.)


Sunshine bathes your skin with a warm embrace. A salty breeze cools you from the summer heat. The crashing waves lull you into a dreamlike trance. The setting is perfect… or it would’ve been, were it not for the rocking subwoofers of your fellow beachgoers bellowing repeated syllables at hypersonic speeds. What would’ve been a relaxing getaway becomes as noisy as 4pm traffic.

Voceteo, or the practice of modifying a vehicle’s sound system to play music at elevated levels, is nothing new. While the concept of voceteo is typically associated with youth culture, the tradition actually originated during the ‘80s. The progenitors of voceteo would blare contemporary musical trends such as salsa and merengue. Similarly, the current generation focuses on playing bass-heavy music such as reggaeton and trap music. Regardless of the genre, Puerto Rican car enthusiasts have been upgrading their sound systems for decades and playing music at deafening levels of sound, much to the chagrin and bewilderment of those around them [1].


From an outsider perspective, voceteo can seem like an incredibly inane pastime. To better understand this phenomenon, a news reporter recently interviewed a vocetero—a voceteo aficionado. During the interview, the vocetero claimed that voceteo “is both a sport and an art form.” Some engage in voceteo to push the limits of what they can achieve with their vehicles. Others see the practice as a form of self-expression and escapism; they enjoy being enveloped by their favorite songs at deafening levels of sound.


Indeed, many voceteros gather to form a community based on the hobby and will obey specific guidelines. During the same interview, the vocetero added that many “agree that voceteo shouldn’t be practiced at late hours, in clustered communities, nor around the elderly.” All good things in moderation, right? The problem is that not all voceteros follow these informal guidelines. Instead, they play loud music at any hour and any location to unwilling audiences across Puerto Rico. The deafening faction of drivers who wantonly practice voceteo give a bad reputation for the community as a whole. This has led some municipalities to take punitive measures and has generated heated debates around voceteo.


Whether it is at a stoplight, at the beach, or even in their own homes, every Puerto Rican has at some point been subjected to an involuntary concert. Some argue that voceteo should be banned completely, describing the practice as obnoxious and selfish. Some approached the subject with more nuance, claiming that any argument against voceteo is inherently classist as voceteo is associated with lower class or caco culture.


I am not an authority on voceteo; I won’t determine the validity of a subculture and pastime that brings joy to some people. That said, a perspective I am comfortable with sharing is that of an environmental neuroscience researcher. In lieu of an anthropological diatribe criticizing voceteo culture, I will elaborate on the potential neurological and ecological impacts of voceteo.


Voceteo not only disrupts the peace but may also change the brain’s morphology and contaminate the acoustic environment.

It is no mystery that chronic elevated sound exposure leads to hearing loss. Within the inner ear, the sensory receptors responsible for detecting sound (also known as hair cells), become damaged upon chronic noise exposure. This initially impairs the detection of higher frequency sounds and low-frequency sounds later on.


The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health indicated that prolonged exposure to sounds exceeding 85dB (the equivalent of city traffic noise) result in irreversible hearing loss [2]. The widespread use of portable devices, which can reach decibel levels of 110-125db, has led around 13% of Americans aged 12 and older to develop hearing loss [3]. A vocetero could easily fall under this demographic, as record noise levels are reported to reach levels of 165dB.


Aside from the social and emotional burdens, hearing loss provokes morphological changes in the brain and may even be associated with the development of dementia [4]. Both dementia and hearing loss lead to brain atrophy, specifically of the temporal lobe which is responsible for sensory processing, and memory formation.


Some theories suggest that degradation of this brain region is what potentiates the development of dementia. One such theory is the “cascade hypothesis,” which posits that decreases in sensory input and socialization following hearing loss lead to cognitive decline. The “cognitive load hypothesis,” on the other hand, suggests that temporal lobe dysfunctions increase strain of other related brain regions. In the latter theory, the compensatory mental effort induced by hearing loss depletes cognitive resources, resulting in cognitive decline. Studies in rodents and humans seem to back these theories as hearing loss has been shown to induce morphological changes in the brain [2,4].


The effects of prolonged noise exposures are not limited to long-term cognitive effects, but short-term decision making as well. Anyone can relate to experiences of not being able to focus in raucous environments. Sounds can divert our attention away from more pressing matters; the same occurs in nature, where impaired reactions can make a difference in an animal’s survival.


Elevated levels of sound pollution can be as harmful as exposures to any number of chemical contaminants. Both marine and non-aquatic species, such as harbor porpoises and Northern saw-whet owls, respectively, change routes and locations due to acoustic pollutants [5,6,7]. Invertebrates are not exempt from the effects of anthropogenic pollutants. Wale et al.showed that the crab Carcinus maenas’ ability to evade predators is disrupted by boat noises [8]. This behavior was described as the distracted prey theory, which demonstrates that predation risk increases due to distractions influenced by human generated sounds [9].


Voceteo in inappropriate locations can lead to worse effects than a headache or a ruined day trip. Not only does this practice perturb vulnerable communities, such as the elderly and those with mental conditions, voceteo can impair the behavior of animals in surrounding areas and impact the brain’s morphology and development. My recommendation to voceteros is to be considerate of yourself and those around you. Limit voceteo to unpopulated locations and consider measures to protect your hearing. Your community, environment, and mental health will thank you for your consideration.



References:

  1. Figueroa, R. (2021). Voceteo: Modalidad de música a to’ volumen que trae locos a los alcaldes. (n.d.). Primera Hora. Retrieved April 15, 2021, from https://www.primerahora.com/noticias/gobierno-politica/notas/voceteo-modalidad-de-musica-a-to-volumen-que-trae-locos-a-los-alcaldes/

  2. Daniel, E. (2007). Noise and Hearing Loss: A Review. Journal of School Health, 77(5), 225–231. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1746-1561.2007.00197.x

  3. Agrawal, Y. (2008). Prevalence of Hearing Loss and Differences by Demographic Characteristics Among US AdultsData From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999-2004. Archives of Internal Medicine, 168(14), 1522. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.168.14.1522

  4. Stahl, S. M. (2017). Does treating hearing loss prevent or slow the progress of dementia? Hearing is not all in the ears, but who’s listening? CNS Spectrums, 22(3), 247–250. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1092852917000268

  5. Dyndo, M., Wiśniewska, D. M., Rojano-Doñate, L., & Madsen, P. T. (2015). Harbour porpoises react to low levels of high frequency vessel noise. Scientific Reports, 5, 11083. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep11083

  6. Kastelein, R. A., van Heerden, D., Gransier, R., & Hoek, L. (2013). Behavioral responses of a harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) to playbacks of broadband pile driving sounds. Marine Environmental Research, 92, 206–214. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marenvres.2013.09.020

  7. Mason, T., McClure, C., & Barber, J. (2016). Anthropogenic noise impairs owl hunting behavior. Biological Conservation, 199, 29–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2016.04.009

  8. Wale, M., Simpson, S., & Radford, A. (2013). Noise negatively affects foraging and antipredator behaviour in shore crabs. Animal Behaviour, 86, 111–118. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.05.001

  9. Chan, A. A. Y.-H., Giraldo-Perez, P., Smith, S., & Blumstein, D. T. (2010). Anthropogenic noise affects risk assessment and attention: The distracted prey hypothesis. Biology Letters, 6(4), 458–461. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2009.1081


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