dition, alternative metrics are described that may be easier for the public to understand than the day-night average sound level (DNL).2


Arguably the modern history of noise metrics began in the 1930s with the search for a way to describe the loudness of sound. This led to the definition of weighting networks for sound-level meters and, because of limitations on the capabilities of calculating sound pressure levels at that time, a single frequency-weighted value—either A-weighted or C-weighted—came into common usage.


In an early attempt to determine the loudness of sound (using discrete-frequency tones), Fletcher and Munson (1933) found that the loudness of a tone depends on both its amplitude and its frequency. Knowing this dependence, they were able to develop a set of equal-loudness curves. In modern terms the unit of loudness is the phon. For example, a 1,000-Hz tone with a sound pressure level of 40 dB has a loudness of 40 phon. At this loudness level the sound pressure level of tones between 1,000 and about 5,000 Hz is generally lower than 40 dB, and the sound pressure level of tones below 1,000 Hz and above about 5,000 Hz is higher than 40 dB.

The sound-level meter was standardized in the early 1930s when microphones and electronic circuits were being developed. Ideally, the standard sound-level meter would have a single-number description of the sound at a given point in space. The best description at the time came from the studies by Fletcher and Munson, who clearly showed that the shape of the equal-loudness curve was dependent on both the amplitude and the frequency of sound. Thus, using the linear electronic circuits of the time, a few curves had to be selected based on the amplitude of the sound. One of the curves selected, which is very close to the 40-phon curve, was designated as “A-weighting.” Another, which was nearly independent of frequency, was designated as “C-weighting.” A third curve, the “B-weighting” curve, which fell between the A and C curves, has long since fallen out of favor. A-weighting and C-weighting are still used today, although the shape of the curves has changed somewhat to provide a standardized mathematical description in terms of poles and zeros of a transmission network.

Work on improving the calculation of loudness based on measurement of the spectrum of sound continued. The best-known early work in the United States was by S. S. Stevens and in Germany by Eberhard Zwicker. Stevens’s Mark VI and Zwicker’s work on loudness were standardized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO, 1975). Later work by Brian Glasberg and Brian Moore in the United Kingdom was the basis for the American National Standard on computation of loudness (ANSI, 2007).

Over the years, A-weighted levels were found to correspond reasonably well to human response, especially for noise spectra in typical offices. Single-number methods of rating noise in offices and other building spaces were also developed, including so-called noise rating curves (NR curves—a curve tangent method of obtaining a single number from an octave band spectrum) and ratings based on loudness and A-weighting.3


One early attempt to develop a metric for forecasting community response to noise was made by Stevens et al. (1955). Unlike the DNL, this metric included nonacoustical factors as well as noise levels and yielded a “composite noise rating.” This rating was then plotted against a scale of community responses—vigorous community action, threats of community action, widespread complaints, sporadic complaints, and no observed reaction. A few case studies showed a reasonable correlation between the measurement and response but with considerable scatter. Community noise levels were determined by measuring the average octave band levels in the community averaged in space and time. A curve tangent method was used to reduce the octave band data to a single-number rating.

Day-Night Average Sound Level

After EPA established the Office of Noise Abatement and Control and after passage of the Noise Control Act of 1972, EPA was faced with the task of developing a metric for community noise with the following characteristics (EPA, 1974):

  1. The measure should be applicable to the evaluation of pervasive long-term noise in various defined areas and under various conditions over long periods of time.

  2. The measure should correlate well with known effects of the noise environment on the individual and the public.

  3. The measure should be simple, practical, and accurate. In principle, it should be useful for planning as well as for enforcement or monitoring purposes.

  4. The required measurement equipment, with standardized characteristics, should be commercially available.


For information on how other countries measure noise in quiet areas, see Appendix B. More information on communication with the public can be found in Chapter 10.


A-weighting is less useful for measuring human response to sound when the spectrum has a large low-frequency component, when high-amplitude peaks in the spectrum are in the 2- to 4-kHz range, and when the sound is tonal or impulsive.

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