Hearing protection and your music career

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When it comes to hearing protection for musicians, it’s worth finding a solution to prolong your career and livelihood

Hearing protection for musicians

About a decade ago, I worked with a drummer who refused to use any sort of hearing protection when playing, even though many of our rehearsals and gigs were decidedly decibel-heavy. “I just let the sound wash over me,” he told me.

After a year or two of not playing together, I had another conversation with that drummer, who, not surprisingly, was beginning to experience ringing in his ears, which could be a sign of tinnitus and other potential hearing damage. He was on his way to an audiologist to get an exam and custom fitted musicians ear plugs.

When it comes to hearing, the truth is your ears don’t care how good the music is, how hot the jam, how deep the connection, or how much you let the sound “wash over you.” Noise is noise, and too many decibels for too long will permanently damage your hearing. (For more on this, check out my article in M: Music and Musicians magazine on hearing protection).

That said, many musicians feel that ear plugs act as an unwelcome barrier. Whether foam, plastic, or silicon, plugs make it difficult to connect with the sound or audience, or muffle the nuances of a player’s instrument, the argument goes — so ears go unprotected.

In my own experience, I’ve found that working with ear plugs as much as possible during practice sessions and rehearsals — especially when mics and amplification are involved — helps me maintain my connection to the music, the audience, and my bandmates without putting my ears at undue risk. I try to practice the same songs or techniques with and without hearing protection – and sometimes with one ear plugged and the other open. This sort of repetition gives me a frame of reference, so when I hear something with ear plugs in, I more quickly imagine what it would sound like with ear plugs out.

Living in New York City, I also have ample opportunities to protect my ears from loud subway screeches or bus air breaks, and I sometimes wear my musicians ear plugs out and about during the day. The more time I spend with them in, especially while engaging in conversations on the street or bouncing around the city, the more comfortable I become with them in general, and the less like I’m walking around — or making music — inside a bubble.

It’s worth experimenting to find the hearing protection solution that works for you. While specially molded musicians earplugs are my favorite choice for now, plenty of players opt for other options, including inexpensive foam ear plugs that you can get from any drugstore. The key is to see what works given your instrument, decibel level, and performance habits, and not to give up on hearing protection as a whole, just because one solution is not be the best fit.

As musicians, we’re in this game for the long haul. Ears are a precious asset, and anything that can be done to maintain hearing acuity while still connecting with your performance is energy well spent.

Image via ShutterStock.com.

Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download now through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and catch him live on his current fall tour.

Learn How to Maintain Your Voice

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Ear Fatigue and Mixing Music – Know the Signs, Avoid Mistakes
Vocal Health Basics – How to Properly Care for Your Voice
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24 thoughts on “Hearing protection and your music career

  1. Thanks for this great and informational post . You have such a helpful advice . I am using EAR Defense High Fidelity Earplugs and definitely it is one of the best hearing protection tool .

  2. I’ll cram 4 years of study into one simple analogy so even the idiots will get it. Your ability to hear can be compared to the tread on your car’s tires. There’s only so much tread before they are useless. Loud sound or repetitive loud sound (like in a manufacturing company or a loud band) will steadily reduce your ability to hear at all frequencies. If you don’t wear something to protect your hearing, you won’t be able to he………. And, Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) can result from one loud blast of sound. And guess what, it never goes away. The damage in your ear doesn’t heal over time like other types of bodily injuries. It’s permanent ! Wear some type of ear protection.

  3. Great advice! I personally find it difficult to take a musician seriously if they do not protect their hearing. Musicians who intend to produce high quality music for the rest of their lives know the value of good hearing.

  4. Reminds of another problem with some musicians, as alluded to by Simon & Garfunkel,
    namely people hearing without listening.

    I also remember one club owner who complained about one group,
    “The problem with your volume is you’ve got so much to watch!”

    (Yes, that last observation was not shipped by weight.)

  5. Answer: Just friggin’ turn it down!
    Just because you have a car that goes 125 miles per hour, doesn’t mean you have to drive at that speed! Sometimes five miles per hour is just fine- preferred even!
    Having had contact with numerous musicians over many years of playing, and equally as many in a recording studio environment, I’m a firm believer that there is no substitute for real playing ability.
    Many musicians, who could potentially be good or even great, don’t put in the time it takes to achieve that level. Instead, out of fear that they will somehow be “found out”, or perhaps simply to feed their massive egos- they insist on playing at inhumane levels.
    No amount of volume will cover up the lack of musical chops.
    And no amount of ego will restore lost or damaged hearing.
    Wake up people! It’s not about the volume, it’s about the music.

  6. I am considering using simple ear plugs for the first time, after 50 years of playing. Does anyone find that ear plugs affect your hearing the INTONATION accurately?
    thank you!

  7. I’ve been an earplug fanatic for years. I’m an electrical engineer by day, but as time permits, I’m a recording and mixing engineer by night. In the studio, you need very sensitive accurate ears or you just about might as well hang up the cans.

    I wear earplugs even at work so I don’t have to listen to the computer fans, etc. I firmly believe that having much silence in your day improves your hearing (or at least reduces loss). I wear 33dB earplugs when driving – and yes, I can hear cars around me and sirens, etc., if necessary. Your ears (and brain) adjust to the quietness and can still pick up on such things very well if your hearing is any good.

    I spoke with an audiologist that is 80% deaf in his left ear. The cause was driving a truck with the window down a lot. Daily things like that will kill your hearing, not just loud music.

    There is now a selection of earplugs available that are made for listening to music (i.e. playing music) without messing up the frequency spectrum too much and that knock it down – maybe 20dB – to save your hearing. If you practice with a band, you should really consider them.

    This subject is important to recording engineers and musicians alike.
    Thanks for this article!

    1. You are absolutely right about the cause of hearing loss being caused by factors other than music. I drive in LA traffic day in and day out for over 30 years. I can tell you that I am sure the loud motorcycles that pass by my car have taken a toll on my ears. I will consider wearing earplugs when I drive. Thanks

      1. One misconception is that the majority of wear on your hearing is from short periods of medium high sound levels, like what you mentioned of motorcycles driving by.
        Just the road noise of being on the highway for periods of time will have a much higher effect – and as I noted before, particularly the wind noise if one or more windows are open. It is the long term sounds that do most of the damage until you get to the very loud levels, like very high powered amplifiers, gunshots, etc. Those items can reduce hearing faster, but those are drastically louder than a motorcycle going by.
        A good rule of thumb is that if it is a severe sound like a firing range with a gun next to your ear, wear hearing protection and if any sounds even at the low level of riding in a car down the highway will be present for even a half hour on a regular basis, wear hearing protection. If you are rehearsing with a band, you will want hearing protection that does not mess up the frequency spectrum, but even a bass amp turned fairly low for a period of time (hour long practice or more) will wear on your hearing to an extent if done regularly.
        I’m picky about that, but then my hearing will always directly affect the quality of my recording mix…

  8. I have been drumming for about 45 years and it has taken a toll on my hearing for sure. About two years ago I read an article in Tape Ops magazine reviewing some inexpensive ear plugs called Flite Mates. Though designed originally to reduce ear pain during airplane flights it turns out that they have the added capability of reducing sound levels dramatically without the usual reduction of the high end frequencies. For those who are not ready to spring for the expensive custom built earplugs they are a great alternative. They are reusable and washable but for about $4 per pair you can keep several pair around and you don’t have to worry about losing them. I am just a fan and I don’t work for Filte Mates. You can Google to find the Tape Ops review and here is a link to one site where you can order them. Well worth the money to protect your ears and still hear all the music. Plus they are far more comfortable than than the earplugs that you usually find at music stores.

  9. I’ve found the best solution (for me anyways!) is to hire a quiet drummer, and play down to their level… I rarely have my amplifier above 3-4 on the volume, and our monitor mixes are strictly voice (again, kept down low). I personally can’t stand anything in my ears, so plugs are out for me, as well as ear buds. Since we also carry our own PA most of the time, I’m also the sound guy-I don’t try to “ring out the room”, but gently bring up the PA volume to where it needs to be, and no more-we almost never have any feedback (another hearing killer!) and the venues like us because we’re not deafeningly loud!!!

    My bassist is suffering from hearing loss-he keeps asking me to crank the treble on his mic, a sure sign if there ever was one… he used to play in very loud heavy rock bands, so it should be kinda expected… gonna have to talk to him about that…

  10. I’m a violinist, fiddler & singer. After playing in symphony orchestras for 15 years (no earplugs & luckily not much direct piccolo exposure!), I began playing in amplified bands in the late 80’s; I’ve worn earplugs since that time. I, like the author, live in NYC, walk the loud streets & ride the subways daily; I’m NEVER without earplugs, above or below ground. I had my first adult audiology test 11 months ago, and was told my hearing was ‘excellent.’ Ear plugs are one simple, inexpensive way to enable me to continue creating and sharing music for decades to come. I recommend them in any form that works for you, and also recommend ditching your earbuds for noise-cancellation headphones to further protect your hearing. Thanks for spotlighting this important topic!

  11. Alcohol increases hearing damage from loud sounds. It inhibits mechanisms the ear uses to protect itself from loudness. Of course these natural protection mechanisms are incomplete, but they are helpful anyway.

    Some people are more sensitive to hearing injury from loudness than others. If your ears ring after hearing loud music and your friends’ ears don’t, take this as a sign of your greater susceptibility to hearing loss from loudness.

  12. I have both Otosclerosis and Tinnitus. I have played music since 1968, back when all we had was volume. Permanent ringing of the ears robs you from EQ’ing anything correctly. Communicating with fellow musicians is more difficult. I wear hearing aids to compensate. Hearing loss combined with constant ringing is counter-productive to being a complete musician. I compensate best I can and rely on trusted ears for studio quality mixes. The best advice I can give is – Watch the headphones! I used to play 5 nights a week and many times come home at 2am, plug in my Rockman to my Portastudio (Ancient tech, worked great!), put on headphones and blast my ears in point-blank proximity for a few more hours. Think about that, after playing live all night, coming home and further damaging my hearing with headphones. That is what caused the most damage. I would certainly take a “Do-Over” on that choice! Also, recreational drugs and alcohol will numb you to the effects until it’s too late. If your ears ring after a gig or a listening session, you have already damaged your ears! Do it consistently and you’ll never have the beautiful and musical ears you were born with and cultivated through so many hours of practice. Good luck to you all. Music is life, don’t let loudness rob you of a big part of your expression…….Peace

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