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.
Did you know that as little as 15 minutes of exposure to very loud music may permanently damage your hearing? Or that 30 percent of rock musicians and upwards to 60 percent 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 ensure 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. 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 percent preventable.
What we hear in music (and beyond) comes to us via our ears, transducers that translate 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 — they don’t repair themselves once damaged by exposure to loud music or other noise. Instead, exposure to dangerous sound levels results in partial loss of one’s ability to hear things clearly, which 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) suggests 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. (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 personal music player at 70 percent or more of its maximum volume for extended periods — or as little as five minutes at its 100 percent volume — all pose risks to your 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 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 Institute Foundation published info about how long you can be exposed to loud sounds before hearing loss is likely to occur. Looking at the chart below, it’s clear that the louder the sound, the less exposure time it takes before you risk permanent hearing loss.
This chart shows the maximum times you can safely be exposed to various sound pressure levels. Going longer increases the risk of 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-minute 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) where the audiologist will make latex impressions of your ear canal, which will ensure your ear plugs can be worn comfortably for hours. There are also numerous options available online. Do a search and your own research to find one that works for you.
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, just lower in volume. Different sets can be ordered with varying dBs of attenuation, depending on how much reduction in volume will best suit your situation.
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, make it a top priority to secure a set of flat response ear 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 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.
Don’t forget to manage the levels of your 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. Noise-cancelling headphones help to reduce playback volume while providing 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, bandmates, and others who love music. Remember, noise-induced hearing loss affects millions of Americans, most of whom could have prevented it if they knew of the risks beforehand. NIHL hits those of us who spend a good deal of our lives making and listening to music especially hard. 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.
Keith Hatschek is author of The Real Ambassadors: Dave and Iola Brubeck and Louis Armstrong Challenge Segregation, which tells the story of Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Iola Brubeck as they took a stand against segregation by writing and performing a jazz musical titled The Real Ambassadors. Hatschek, who directed the music management program at University of the Pacific for twenty years, has authored numerous music industry books, including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the New Music Industry, The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros, and The Historical Dictionary of the American Music Industry.