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What is a Decibel?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 21, 2024
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A decibel is one unit on the decibel scale, which is a logarithmic scale. The name means one-tenth of a bel, a bel being an eponymous unit named for Alexander Graham Bell and used to compare power in electrical communication, voltage, or intensity of sound. The abbreviation of bel is B and decibel, dB.

10 dB = 1 B

The primary use of the decibel scale today is to test audibility, and the results are called the sound-pressure level (SPL), which is similar to loudness. The Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) has set guidelines to help people determine the maximum loudness they should be exposed to. The SPL level that OSHA recommends is 85 decibels, above which special ear protection is required.

Eighty-five decibels is the threshold for the possibility of noise-related hearing loss, and this guideline is intended to prevent such hearing loss. This figure suggests that many people who do not currently use ear protection should consider it. The following chart reveals that a great deal of the sound we’re exposed to is above that 85-decibel threshold. Because conditions may vary and distances are not specified, these figures are approximate.

DecibelsSound Source
0low threshold of hearing
10leaves rustling in the breeze; quiet whisper
20average whisper
20-50quiet conversation
40-45conversation between acts at a theatre; hotel lobby conversation
50-65loud conversation
65-70moderate traffic; hair dryer
75-80factory (medium)
90heavy traffic; power lawn mower
100boom box with volume turned high; chain saw
110shouting; symphony concert
115rock concert
120ambulance siren
130threshold of pain
140airplane takeoff
140-190space rocket takeoff

Sound pressure level meters, sound level meters, or sound meters are tools used to measure the SPL, the intensity of sound, at a given moment. Such meters use frequency-weighting scales that account for the difference in human sensitivity to different frequencies. The A scale, a decibel scale abbreviated as dBA or dB(A), and the C scale, a decibel scale abbreviated as dBC or dB(C), are the most frequently used. The meters also can be set to slow or fast response. The testing that OSHA specifies when sound has been found to exceed the level it recommends is A scale testing set to slow response.

Dosimeters are like sound level meters, but they monitor, store, and integrate readings over time and can give an average reading for a specified duration. Dosimeters are used for personal noise monitoring, while sound level meters are used for area noise monitoring. Because the dosimeter is used for longer periods and to track the sound exposure one person experiences, it is made to be worn and has a clip-on microphone to pick up sound.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for All The Science, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By anon46579 — On Sep 27, 2009

what is the decibel level of a car horn?

By anon19810 — On Oct 20, 2008

what is the decibel of a jackhammer?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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