Can’t you hear me knockin’? Practical strategies to protect your hearing.

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Most hearing loss associated with exposure to loud noises, or noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), is permanent, painless, and preventable. If you are a musician, you need to be proactive when it comes to minimizing risks to protect your hearing.

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.

Ear Basics

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.

Common sounds and their sound levels measured in dBs.
Common sounds and their sound levels measured in dBs.

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.

Radio Shack's affordable sound pressure level (SPL) meter is a good tool to keep track of just how loud your band is playing or the volume of your studio monitors.
Radio Shack's affordable sound pressure level (SPL) meter is a good tool to keep track of how loud your band is or the volume of your monitors.

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.

This chart shows the maximum times you can safely be exposed to various sound pressure levels. Going longer increases the risk of hearing loss. Source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
This chart shows the maximum times you can safely be exposed to various sound pressure levels. Going longer increases the risk of hearing loss. Source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

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.

A common style of custom-fitted earplug.
A common style of custom-fitted earplug.

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.

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Story Links
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.

Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Disc Makers Echoes blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He has also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry, which just came out in its third edition, and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.

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18 thoughts on “Can’t you hear me knockin’? Practical strategies to protect your hearing.

  1. I’ve played in bands for many years and currently play in two bands that both, despite my protestations perform at ear-splitting on-stage levels.
    I have realised too late that my hearing has been damaged and almost certainly permanently.
    I have tinnitus, manifesting as a constant high-pitched whistling.
    I have only just started to wear earplugs at performances and rehearsals. Everything sounds weird, like you’re playing in a bubble and it takes a lot off getting used to. It’s very difficult to know whether I’m too loud, too quiet or even if I’m playing the right song but currently there’s no other solution.
    I wish I started using them years ago.
    None of my bandmates feel the need to use earplugs …

  2. Great article. Thanks for all the pertinent information. I lead an Irish band and you wouldn’t think it could get that loud but between drums, guitar and bass amps and monitors on stage for everyone, it is very loud. I have “musician’s friends” ear plugs but am going to step up and spend the money on the custom molded ones. I’m also seriously considering getting the in ear monitors. I am certainly going to print out this article and give to not only the guys in my band but all of my fellow musician friends.

  3. Having developed hyperacusis (super sensitive hearing) and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) at the same time, I’m glad I work for American Hearing Aid Associates. I’ve been fitted with custom-molded musicians’ earplugs, and they are great. You can however get off-the-shelf versions at a local music store. They work about as well, but you can’t use your cell phone with them in, since the stem bangs into the phone. It’s ironic that I actually wish for less hearing than I have now, but I stronly encourage every musician to wear plugs.

  4. I work in concert sound. I find the current volume wars to be insane. Sometimes I’d like to file assault charges against the band and the engineers for the levels I’m forced to endure.
    I do have custom-made musician’s ear plugs. So, why do I get dirty looks from the “talent” if they see me insert them?

    1. Never be shy about putting in your earplugs. It’s YOUR hearing and you want to be able to talk to your grandkids someday. I put mine in regularly in bars, concerts, anywhere I need them. You can buy a box of the yellow or tan foam cylander shaped ear plugs… 200 or 500 pairs for $25 at a safety supply shop. I’ve had $125 custom molded ones and they are nice, but not much better… only minorly more comfortable. Foam is cheap, effective, disposable. I keep piles in my car, my coats, anywhere. Also, I’m a drummer so I use “Ultimate Ears” brand which are by far the best. $500 up to $1200 depending. You pay about $100 to get molded at any audiologist. SAVE THE HEARING and look cool too. Just buy a box of the tan color foam ones. If someone asks “why are you wearing earplugs” just smile and say, “What? What?”

      1. Be sure to properly insert the foam earplugs. BIG difference. The instructions say to roll, hold and squeeze, pull ear back, and insert. You want them IN the ear canal. Then they will expand and fill it up. Most people just haphazardly shove them in and you see half the foam earplug stick out. That doesn’t do the job. You can achieve 25 to 30 decibels of reduction if you insert the earplugs properly. It’s weird at first, but you’ll get used to it. You might feel like you’re watching the bar scene unfold on TV instead of reality, but it’s an easy adjustment. Mostly, when you leave the concert or bar you won’t having hearing fatigue. Even on road trips you have lower decibel damage because it’s over 2 or 3 hours. Earplugs help with that too. You’ll talk louder so try not to yell at everyone. (buy the cheap stuff)

  5. I’ve been playing music professionally since 1969, mostly rock and R&B bands. About 20 years ago I invested in the best molded earplugs I could get and wore them intermittently for another 20 years. I then got serious about it and began wearing them regularly and I credit them with saving my hearing, although I have some hearing loss of course. I’m retired now but still play a lot of gigs and still use them all the time. I mostly play sax, which presents an interesting problem. You hear yourself really well, thru bone conduction, but you hear a tone that has virtually no overtones and sounds more like a tone generator than a sax. It’s frustrating, but the alternative is worse. Sometimes I loosen a plug in one ear when I’m about to take a solo and that helps, but I have to put the plug right back in after the solo. I’ve also found that the more you wear them, the easier it gets, as you get used to them from repeated use. Earplugs are where it’s at, and, as difficult as it is to use them, hearing aids are worse.

  6. I have been using custom made earplugs for about 5 years now and most of the time they do a perfect job.
    However there are two minor problems that occur.
    One is that when wearing the plugs the sound of my own voice is really weird, coming more from inside then via my ears, making singing practicaly impossible.
    The other thing I noticed is that when I smile the shape of my face changes in a certain way resulting in a leaking of the closure of the plugs. So this means I have to look with a serious face all the time for the plugs to work properly.
    Anybody noticed this too and have some solution to it?
    I am a happy person most of the time and like to smile…

  7. As a long-time member of the American Tinnitis Association and one who suffers with permanent tinnitus, I am so very pleased to read your informative article on this very important subject. I receive too many complaints from people that the music is too loud and many have stopped going to live music performances because they can’t visit or enjoy the music for very long. I would like to republish this article on the Houston Blues Society website and give credits to Disc Makers, Keith Hatschek and Fast Forward, Recording & Mastering.

    1. My father is suffering from Tinnitus. He’s been distracted, can’t sleep… just lost the hearing in one ear last year so he’s new to this. He uses noise devices to help suppress the freight trains and waterfalls that he now hears. Any advice or anything that works well for you? Caffeine withdrawal, cardio excercise, meditation? Just trying to help him. He’s 67 years old now and has many years to live. Thanks.

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