Practical Strategies to Protect Your Hearing
Did you know that as little as 15 minutes of exposure to very loud music may permanently damage your hearing? Or that 30% of rock musicians and more than 52% of classical musicians have some level of measurable hearing loss due to exposure to high volume levels of music? If you or someone you know is involved in music-making, it’s time to learn a little bit about the risks of hearing loss and the simple things you can do to insure that you retain your hearing well into the future.
Before we launch into an overview of how and why musicians’ hearing loss can occur, it’s essential to understand that such hearing loss, which is termed noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) by the audiology community is permanent, painless, and preventable. Unlike the ringing in your ears that usually goes away the next day after a loud concert, NIHL is permanent and irreversible. When you are exposed to potentially damaging sound levels, you will generally not feel any pain or discomfort. And finally, with an understanding of how the ear works and what range of sound levels pose the greatest danger, combined with the use of well-designed ear plugs whenever you’re at risk, hearing loss in musicians is 100% preventable.
Much of what we hear in music comes to us via the use of our ears, transducers that translates one form of acoustic energy into another form of energy. Transducers abound in sound and music. Onstage, a microphone transducer converts the sound wave made by a voice into an electrical impulse transmitted to your PA system. An amp’s loudspeaker is a transducer that converts a guitar’s electrical voltage into an acoustic sound wave. Ears work the same way: the outer ear acts as a funnel to direct sound waves from the air to the eardrum which vibrates and activates tiny bones in the middle ear. The vibrations of these bones are picked up by the tiny hair cells (called cilia) in the inner ear, which translates the vibrations into electrical impulses and sends them via the auditory nerve into your brain.
The problems leading to NIHL center on the fact that each person’s 15-20,000 cilia are non-regenerative, meaning that they don’t repair themselves once cilia are damaged by exposure to loud music or other noise. Instead, exposure to dangerous sound levels result in partial loss of one’s ability to hear things clearly, which ironically, may lead a person to increase the volume even more, accelerating a downward spiral of additive hearing loss which may be permanent.
Most of us can recall attending a concert and noticing a buzzing or ringing in the ears afterwards. By the next day, hearing appeared to return to normal and the buzzing sound was gone. What you experienced was known as a Temporary Threshold Shift, which largely disappears within 16 hours of exposure to loud music (or other noise, like a train, subway, power tools, etc.) However, regular exposure to loud sounds, especially music, either in concert, rehearsal or the recording studio greatly increases the likelihood that you will begin to suffer permanent hearing loss.
How Loud is Too Loud?
Although the US government safety agency OSHA recommends that any sound over 90 dB is considered likely to cause some hearing loss after prolonged exposure, most audiologists recommend that the level at which you start to take preventative measures to protect your hearing is 85 dB. (A dB is short for decibel, a unit used to measure the intensity of a sound wave. The decibel scale is logarithmic, meaning that when a sound increases by 10 dB it has become 10 times louder.)
The places where one is most likely to be exposed to loud sound levels is pretty obvious… or is it? Rock concerts average between 110-120 dB, amplified band rehearsals regularly exceed 85 dB, and listening to your iPod or other personal music player at 70% or more of its maximum volume for extended periods – or as little as 5 minutes at its 100% volume – all pose risks to one’s hearing. OSHA warns that any exposure to sound levels of 115 dB or more poses a serious risk to your hearing health.
A simple way to gauge when you may be approaching the 85 dB threshold is that whenever you have to consistently raise your voice to be heard or have difficulty hearing others over a sound source, you may be approaching the danger zone. If you are a gigging musician or work in a recording studio, it makes sense to invest in a small battery-powered sound pressure level (SPL) meter. Radio Shack sells one for less than $50 which is a good investment to keep in your band’s practice room. You may be surprised to learn your drummer can easily top 95 dB when he or she really wails and that’s before you crank up your 100-watt amp.
However, the volume level of music or sound is only one part of the equation in assessing risks to your hearing. The second is how long you are exposed to elevated sound levels. The House Ear Institute published the chart which shows how long you can be exposed to loud sounds before hearing loss is likely to occur. Looking at the chart, it’s clear that the louder the sound, the less exposure time it takes before you risk permanent hearing loss.
So now that you know about the risks of exposure to loud music or other noise, how can you continue to enjoy music, even when it’s loud, and have peace of mind about your hearing wellness?
Practical Steps to Hearing Protection
1. Be dB smart. Learn to automatically respond when you find yourself approaching a situation where sound levels will be in the danger zone. A little bit of common sense goes a long way toward protecting your hearing. If you’re going out to hear some new bands, be sure to take along your ear plugs. Also, standing within 10 feet of a speaker or PA system greatly increases the chances you’ll suffer some permanent hearing loss, especially if the music is louder than 100 dB. (Remember, typical concerts average 110-120 dB, and sometimes have peaks of up to 130 dB!)
Whenever you’ll be exposed to loud music, do your best to reduce your exposure time, as the detrimental effects of NIHL are cumulative. Also, be sure to rest your ears between exposures. Even a 15-miute break between sets in a quiet environment can help reduce your risk of hearing loss.
2. Invest in a good quality set of ear plugs. Find an audiologist familiar with fitting personalized custom-made flat response attenuators (audiologist-speak for ear plugs). The cost for such plugs is $150-$200 including the fitting process, where the audiologist will make latex impressions of your ear canal, which will insure your ear plugs can be worn comfortably for hours. More importantly, unlike inexpensive foam plugs, which end up muffling high frequencies and obscuring sound and speech perception, flat response attenuators allow music to be heard as clear as the original but at a reduced (and safer) listening level. So music sounds perfectly balanced in terms of the highs and lows, but simply lower in volume.
Most sets can be ordered with 9, 15 or 25 dB of attenuation, depending on how much reduction in volume will best suit your situation. Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers (H.E.A.R.) offers a gift certificate for a fitting and set of ear plugs along with a list of partner audiologists all around the country (see links that follow the story).
3. Pump Down the Volume. Turn down the volume to a manageable level on stage and especially during rehearsals. If you must practice or perform at volume levels of greater than 85-90 dB (most of us do), then make it a top priority to secure a set of flat response plugs right away. For guitarists, it might be time to evaluate how loud you need to play to get your ideal tones. There are many amp options today that allow you to get the sound of a fire-breathing double Marshall stack using an amp or a modeling system that can be amplified through the house PA system, thereby reducing the overall dB level on stage.
If you are in a regularly gigging or touring band, consider purchasing an in-ear monitor system. In-ear monitors eliminate the battle to be heard on stage, especially for vocalists. Take the case of rock musician, David Byrne, who switched to in-ear monitors and said, “I was sold almost immediately. I no longer had to shout over a monitor. I felt more comfortable about my pitch and I can listen at a lower volume which means I never go home with ringing in my ears.” Individual in-ear systems from top manufacturers such as Shure and Audio-Technica start at around $600 per person.
Don’t forget to manage the levels of your iPod or other personal digital music player. When you’re using one in a noisy environment (bus, subway, plane, etc.) the tendency to turn up the volume increases your risk of NIHL. I recently purchased a $50 set of Sony noise-cancelling headphones to use with my iPod and found that on a cross country flight, I was able to reduce the playback volume on my iPod by about 20%, while actually hearing better frequency response.
4. Buy a Sound Pressure Level (SPL) meter. How do you know how loud you are actually playing until you actually measure the sound? Especially for anyone working long hours in the recording studio, the tendency will be to turn up the mix as a session heads into extra innings, and that’s when hearing damage can occur. With a SPL meter handy, you can monitor levels and keep them within a range that won’t cause harm.
5. Tell a Friend. Take what you’ve learned about protecting your own hearing and share it with your friends, band mates, and others who love music. Remember, noise-induced hearing loss affects more than 10 million Americans, most of whom could have prevented it, if they knew of the risks beforehand. NIHL especially hits hard those of us who spend a good deal of lives making and listening to music. So make it a point to be proactive about hearing protection so that you’ll be making and enjoying music with all your hearing intact for decades to come.
H.E.A.R. Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers
Founded by a musician who suffered permanent hearing loss while playing a major arena, the website is loaded with information and tips to preserve your hearing, as well as offering links to many other hearing preservation organizations and audiologists who specialize in working with musicians across North America.
House Ear Institute Sound Partners Program
Leading audio companies who are dedicated to supporting the hearing conservation efforts of this LA-based Institute.
Virtual Hearing Conservation Workshop
Take this virtual workshop to learn more about hearing conservation as well as how the ear works.
Straight Talk About Hearing Conservation
An informative newsletter from Shure who make both earplugs to protect your hearing as well as in-ear monitor systems which help to lower the overall level of sound onstage.
Radio Shack SPL meter
(They also offer one with an analog meter at a slightly lower cost)
Safe iPod Listening Levels article
Two researchers outline how to avoid hearing loss when using an iPod or other personal music device.