What is a Decibel?


The decibel is the common measure of sound intensity and radio signal strength. Although it has never been ratified by any governing standards body, its suitability to measuring ratios and losses has led to widespread adoption of the decibel in industry and research. Although most commonly used today as a measure of sound intensity in air, the decibel was actually invented to measure the loss of sound intensity in electrical wire. In its regular form, the decibel is abbreviated "dB". When used to measure ratios of other forms of energy intensity the abbreviation is postfixed with appropriate, though non-standard, abbreviation. For instance, "dBk" indicates kilowatt loss, and "dBv" indicates voltage loss.

Sound is perceived by humans and most animals in a logarithmic manner of intensity. Therefore, the bel system of sound intensity measurement is also logarithmic. Zero on the bel scale is the human hearing threshold, perceivable only by the young, and 1 is the level that any healthy human can perceive. Each increase of 1 point on the bel scale corresponds to a tenfold increase in noise intensity, although due to the logarithmic nature of human hearing, is perceived only as a threefold increase. As the bel system measurements are too large for practical use, the decibel system is more commonly used. As the name implies, an increase of ten decibels is equivalent to an increase of one bel. However, a decibel is not considered one tenth of a bel, as the scale is logarithmic. A convenient consequence of the logarithmic scale is that a change of 1 decibel at normal room levels (40-50 decibels) is the just noticeable difference for most people. As sound waves expand isotropically through air in a three-dimensional manner, their intensity reduces as an inverse function of the square of the distance from the sound source. This translates to a 6 decibel decrease for every doubling of distance.

Studies have led to the establishment of safe sound levels for long term human exposure that, when followed, significantly reduce the danger of hearing loss. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has established 70 decibels as the maximum safe daily average. In practice, this is only slightly higher than the natural sound levels in most office buildings, and is significantly lower than the ambient sound levels in almost all industrial work environments. For instance, the manufacturing, construction, and transportation industries all expose their workers to 90 decibels on a regular basis, with the ambient sound level rarely going below 65 decibels. Improved equipment designed specifically for reduced sound levels and mandatory use of hearing protection help prevent sound-related injuries.

StumbleUpon Toolbar


Submit to Technorati

Rate this answer: (What is a Decibel?)
Anything else you'd like to add:
Would you like a personal response:

Life Science Terminology Questions


  • Custom Search




Something New!

7 more days...