Maybe the Most Important Post For Any Musician: Your Hearing

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Musician: If you are planning to make music for a long time, and hear the voices of the ones you love… please take heart and a set of earplugs. Your hearing is too important to toy with.

Did you know that…

Inside our ears live tiny hair cells. They are part of a truly miraculous machinery involving small bones, membranes, fluids, said tiny hair cells and the auditory nerve. These hair cells (called stereocilia) are responsible for translating sound into electrical signals which are then received and decoded by the brain. Loud sounds make these cells shrivel and die. They do not regrow.

  • A normal conversation is between 40 and 80 dB
  • Rock concerts are as loud as 140 dB
  • Headphones at loudest setting can deliver up to 105 dB
  • Hearing damage can start at or above 85 dB

There are many apps available that can measure loudness. Why not download one of them and take a measurement? I did and now I even wear earplugs in my car! The noise level on the highway is close to 90 dB with my car Since we are often talking while driving, we don’t even notice that we are actually yelling into each other’s ears. Not good!

Factors influencing the severity of hearing loss:

  • Intervals of exposure
  • Length of exposure at a time
  • Loudness (dB)
  • Distance from the source

Hearing loss often happens gradually, so you may not notice it until it is too late.

Maybe you have experienced transient hearing loss: immediately after a loud concert you may feel like there is a waterfall inside your ear; or you may have a much harder time understanding speech than usual. The worst of this phenomenon may be temporary and hearing seems to rebound after 20 to 48 hours. Unfortunately, newer research suggests that the hearing may not come back to its full prior level. And here is more bad news: loud noises can not only cause hearing loss but also the dreaded tinnitus.

All frequencies do equal damage, by the way:

  • high frequencies are a bit less insidious because we tend to feel pain when they hit our ears too hard: loud cymbal rings, guitars… they do damage but they are fairly easy to spot
  • low frequencies tend not to hurt that much but because low frequencies have so much energy, they can do just as much damage, if not more. So a low kick drum or bass sound may hit us in the gut and not immediately make us turn down or reach for the ear plugs.

What you can do:

    • When you are at concerts or shows: don’t stand right in front of the speaker at that concert. Instead, congregate around the mixing board. There it will probably have the best sound in the house anyways.
    • Use proper earplugs. Rolled up napkins or cotton balls are not sufficient.
    • Good options:
        • Custom-made Westone (or similar brand) plugs are great, but pricey and very easy to lose on a dark stage. I have several of them but lost even more of them. Also, ears change! My most favorite ones stopped fitting after about 10 years. What is nice is that you can get specific filters for various frequencies and dB levels. Truth be told, however, if it gets too complicated, I tend to not use them. Moving parts means losing parts. If you would like to get some, find an audiologist locally who will take and impression and have them made for you to then pick up and fit after several weeks.
        • Get a version of Etymotics. They look like little Christmas trees and the good ones come in various sizes with a string attached so you can hang them around your neck. A little container keeps them safe on your key ring or gig bag.
          Here is an assortment of my favorites:
        • Etymotic high fidelity Earplugs

As you can see they start below $20.00. Isn’t your hearing worth that?

Friend of mine recently sustained severe – thank God temporary – hearing loss brought on by feedback during a sound check. He was nauseous for days, threw up, had bleeding ears and was miserable and understandably panicked. The noise exposure was just for a few seconds, but with such big impact!

Yes but…

Maybe you are struggling with the thought of wearing earplugs because

  • it doesn’t look very fashionable! Bullocks, yes it does – get cool colored ones or ones without the little stick sticking out: these literally disappear into the ear while providing full protection:
  • You worry about the sound on stage. Yes, it takes some getting used to. The highs will sound a bit muffled and you may have to get used to the balance and the feeling of being a bit closed off to the audience. You get used to it after three gigs or so. It is a small price to pay!
  • …“I can’t stand the feeling in my ear.” Trust me, getting used to the sensation of earplugs and the slight changes (if you use quality ear plugs) in sound perception , is much better than the misery you’ll suffer when Tinnitus sets in or you can’t hear the music you love no more.

How about In-Ears?

If you use inner ear monitors – set the level as low as you can tolerate and you will be protected.

Please protect your hearing.

And if you are apprehensive about being on stage with them: start with places like the car, the plane, the bus, the construction zone, the kitchen when the mixer runs. If you are in a club and have to yell to hear each other, you are slowly killing off this most precious miraculous machine that gives you the wonders of music, voices, and orientation in space.

Here are a few of the places I keep some spare ear plugs at all times:

Protect your hearing with etymotics on a key ring   Etymotics hearing protection on my gig bag

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recent sighting…

The Recording Academy supports and promotes the use of ear plugs for all musicians and concert goers…. recent sighting at the Grammy after show party of this sign next to a table of free earplugs!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going to South by SouthWest 2017?

MusiCares offers Free Hearing Test Sessions + Custom Hearing Molds Sessions all week
See Schedule Here

 

Comments(10)

  • March 6, 2017, 15:18  Reply

    Instead of “promoting ear plugs for all musicians and concert goers”, it’d make more sense to turn down the volume at those events. I’m a professional musician and music teacher and I’m tired of loud volumes, at sound checks, gigs, rehearsals…

    • Ari
      March 6, 2017, 15:48

      There is one thing I can agree with: many concerts are unnecessarily loud and turning down to ~90db would be wise. Apart from that: loud sounds are everywhere, they are a fact of life. Some instruments are louder than others by their very nature. Standing next to a trumpet, trombone, even a flute that blows directly in your ear will be dangerously loud. Stand a bit further away and you’ll be fine

    • wwolf
      March 6, 2017, 17:20

      Some concerts are too loud, yes. However, advocating against using earplugs in hopes that the rest of the world makes sure you won’t get frustrated by loud volumes is downright dangerous. We have to be flexible and adapt to the situations we’re in. Sometimes you can make ‘em turn down. Other times: earplugs!

  • March 6, 2017, 15:23  Reply

    Whenever I teach ensembles, I force the drum students to take out their ear plugs. I tell them it’s just not fair that they want to protect their hearing while abusing of everybody else’s hearing with loud drumming. I tell them “If you need ear plugs, you are playing too loud”. Until now, most of them didn’t like it, but everybody has accepted it.

    • Ari
      March 6, 2017, 15:47

      Suggest brushes or rods or if you want to go extreme: dampening pads on all drum surfaces or even electronic drums. But for the sake of keeping your musicians happy: find a medium acceptable volume and use ear plugs.

    • wwolf
      March 6, 2017, 17:28

      I feel for your drummers. reasonable rehearsal volume – yes. But don’t force your students. Your “it’s not fair” reasoning is unrealistic. Some instruments are naturally loud and need to be in order to produce good sound/tone. In case of doubt: brushes, rods, smaller drums. Telling anybody who protects their ears with earplugs to not do so is irresponsible and will damage ears down the line.

  • Mark
    March 7, 2017, 07:32  Reply

    Thank you for this post, Ari. I too like the Etymotic plugs, as well as their products for en-ear monitors, and for lower volume situations such as playing close to an acoustic piano (which can get quite loud!), I like Earasers… they are silicone, and cut somewhere from 5 db up. The danger is real, and it is shocking that live venues are allowed to have volumes that can do damage.

    • Ari
      March 10, 2017, 01:33

      Thank you for recommending those, something for lower volumes sounds great. I can’t find them. Got a link?

      And I agree with you, live venues should turn way down, and they should have a sign up, and give out free earplugs!

  • Mark
    March 7, 2017, 07:39  Reply

    Also, it is interesting that if one thinks about what long-term safe volume of music should be for humans, the delicateness of our hearing might inform our direction of study… perhaps that acoustic bass guitar is of just the right loudness after all.

  • Ari
    March 12, 2017, 00:37  Reply

    Heard a baroque music concert tonight which was gorgeously soft. You could hear the hairs on each violin and the acoustics were perfect. No earplugs needed if you were in the audience. (The violinist standing right in front of the oboe, however, maybe! Then we moved on to a bar in the Berkeley Univ hood and measured ear-insulting 95 dB just room sound. Ear plugs came in like you won’t believe!

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