Ear Health And The Musician

by Chad Criswell

When a musician thinks about their health and wellbeing they most commonly think about protecting their hands, fingers, or voice.  In other words, we worry the most about the parts of our body with which we make music.  Why is it then that so many of us totally forget to protect our hearing when it is the one part of our bodies that cannot repair itself and suffers cumulative damage over time from exposure to excessively loud sounds.  


If you think your hearing is fine consider this, even musicians that do not work at loud sound levels regularly can suffer damage to their hearing.  In fact, a 2007 study of a group of school band directors showed that over 80% of them suffered some degree of hearing damage ranging from minor to significant.  Other studies have shown that our children are damaging their hearing at an alarming rate through the use of earbuds and other listening devices.  With these things in mind and regardless of your chosen genre of music please consider the following suggestions to help preserve your hearing well into old age.


How Loud Is Too Loud?

We are exposed to large variances in noise on a daily basis.  Occasional, brief exposure to loud sounds such as the passing of a jet overhead do not cause permanent damage (usually).  But when those loud noises or loud music is maintained at high levels for any length of time damage to the hairlike hearing cells inside the cochlea of our ears become frayed almost like the split ends at the end of a personís hair.  Some of them will regenerate but some will die and not be replaced. Each lost cell diminishes the quality of a personís hearing.  Over time this loss is cumulative and can be significant.  For a visual representation of this damage take a look at this Hear For A Lifetime video by Etymotic Research.


Know The Early Warning Signs and Causes of Hearing Damage

The most common sign of early stage hearing damage is tinnitus, otherwise known as ringing in the ears.  Tinnitus commonly occurs in individuals at loud music concerts, ensemble rehearsals, and in certain kind of jobs such as construction.  The persistent, high decibel noise from a loudspeaker, the percussion section, or a jackhammer can all have the same effect of fraying those delicate hearing cells in the ear.  


If immediately after listening to music or after a loud sound ends you hear a buzzing or ringing in your ears then your hearing has been damaged.  The degree of damage depends greatly on the intensity of the pressure wave that was bombarding your ears.  If you are worried at all about your hearing you owe it to yourself to speak to your doctor about it and take steps to preserve as much hearing as you can through proactive hearing protection methods.


Protecting Your Hearing As A Musician

The solution to protecting your hearing as a musician is to wear earplugs during rehearsals and concerts.  Not just any earplugs, but special ones that are specifically designed to reduce the intensity of sound while not disrupting the frequency of those sounds.  There are a number of manufacturers of this kind of earplug such as Etymotic and Hearos.  A good pair of consumer level earplugs will cost between $10 and $25.  For high end professional use special molded earplugs can be found as well that do an even better job.  


What About Earbuds?

Another common cause of hearing loss is the over amplification of sound by users of earbuds and earphones.  In general though studies have shown that in a quiet environment people will almost always select a volume level that is safe for their ears.  It is only in noisy environments such as when mowing the lawn or riding in an airplane that we turn the volume up too high in an attempt to hear the music clearly.  The solution to this is to purchase noise isolating earbuds with tips that conform to the shape of your ear canal, thus blocking out these external noise sources and allowing you to enjoy listening to music at safe levels.

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Chad Criswell is a noted music educator living and teaching in a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa.  His articles have appeared in dozens of publications both online and in print.  He currently serves as the national music technology writer for NAfME's Teaching Music Magazine and webmaster of MusicEdMagic.com.