In the American population, about 15% of people aged 20 to 69 have lost some high frequency range hearing. While our modern world has been noisy for quite some time, the increase in use of personal listening devices as well as loud concert attendance has exacerbated the problem.
For professional musicians, every day involves listening to sounds that may be at damaging volumes. From Jimmy Page to Huey Lewis, professional musicians report a significantly higher rate of hearing loss than the general public. In a study published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine, professional musicians are four times as likely to develop noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and 57% more likely to develop tinnitus. Many people associate NIHL with short but painfully loud bursts of sound, but it can also be caused by regular exposure to sound levels that are not even uncomfortably loud.
Hearing Loss is Easier to Come By than You Might Think
Over the course of a single workday, sound levels reaching 85 decibels (dB) can cause permanent damage to the cilia (tiny, hair-like cells) inside the ear, which transfer the energy from the middle ear into electrical signals for interpretation by the brain. For a little context, 85 dB is about the level of a large diesel engine at idle. In our modern world, it’s fairly common to encounter sounds like that every day, for a short period of time. Musicians, however, performing for extended periods every night, are frequently exposed to that and higher dB levels. Musicians, compared to the general population, are exposed to sound more regularly, and the very livelihood that puts them in contact with that sound is at stake if they end up with extensive hearing loss as a result. So, what can musicians do to reduce the risk and mitigate the effects of hearing loss?
Get Tested Regularly
Since musicians are exposed to sound so much more frequently than the general population, it’s important to get their hearing tested more often. For one, musicians in studios need to know if they’re not hearing everything that they’re making decisions about. But even more importantly, if it turns out that a musician is suffering from hearing loss, they’ll want to take extra precaution against further damage.
Earplugs, Earplugs, Earplugs
Don’t just wear earplugs when the music is painfully loud. You can download a dB meter for your cell phone that will tell you just how loud the sound is in a given space. If it’s close to 85 dB, put the earplugs in. (This is great advice for non-musicians as well!)
If you’re wearing earplugs at all regularly, you’ll want to upgrade from the cheap, disposable foam ones you see everywhere. These can be unpleasant, as they remove more high frequencies than low, put pressure on the ear canal, and consequently make it more difficult to experience the music as it is intended. Options are available in the $15 range that will decrease the dB while not affecting the balance of the frequency range as much. However, these will still contribute to what is known as the “occlusion effect,” where the musician’s own voice will sound hollowed out to themselves, seeming to come more from inside their own head than outside it. This is a real problem for singers, and also creates an unnatural feeling when talking.
Professional musicians will want to obtain custom-fit earplugs. These are significantly less obtrusive to the experience of hearing music than even the best non-fitted earplugs. They are also more expensive, but the cost will be well worth it for the preservation of your livelihood and the increased pleasure of listening through them. You’ll need to be refitted periodically, as the shape of your ear canal changes over time, but anyone who has a set of custom-fitted earplugs can tell you just what an improvement they are.
A professional musician might also want to consider in-ear monitors. These will deliver the live mix directly to the musician’s ear, while also providing isolation from ambient sound around them. A musician performing with loud drums and guitar amps can greatly benefit from the reduction in decibels offered by in-ear monitoring rather than stage monitoring.
Hearing Aids for Musicians?
While hearing aids can improve intelligibility of speech, at this time they are not great at reproducing music. A musician may need to obtain hearing aids in the event of hearing loss, but the best practice is to always wear earplugs and get your hearing tested regularly. Music can offer a lifetime of enjoyment, but only if we can hear it.