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Home > Articles > Music and Your Hearing

Music and Your Hearing
Dana Thompson, MS
As musicians, our ears are one of our most important "tools." They allow us to perform incredibly subtle tasks and discern event he slightest changes in pitch, loudness and rhythm. Granted, everyone enjoys the ability to hear and persons with hearing loss can attest to the difficulties that they experience once their hearing begins to decline. The everyday wear and tear of living in an industrialized society will take its gentle toll on our hearing sensitivity, but how can musicians protect what is so vital to their craft? Ironically, OSHA has established so-called "safe" or acceptable noise levels for industry but these levels currently do not apply to the music industry. While music is truly recreational for some people, it is the life work of others and probably should be considered "occupational" in nature. This article will give a general overview for some basic concepts of hearing conservation and health care.

It is a common misperception that only rock and roll bands are damaging to the ears. The stacks of speakers and amplifiers we see at concerts are a testament to the fact that somewhere along the line, louder became better. We’ve all seen people who abuse their hearing with music. The advent of Walkmans©, Discmans© and souped-up home and car stereo systems has afforded us a whole new way to pump up the volume. The fact is, however, that an electric guitar at 100 decibels hearing level is exactly the same as a violin at 100 decibels hearing level. Just because an instrument is acoustic and not electric does not prevent your ears from the same "noise-related" (or in this case music-related) damage.

There are several types of protective devices that can minimize (or attenuate) the damaging effects of music. There is a substance you buy at the drugstore called "ear putty" and it literally is just that - putty. While it is inexpensive and can be molded to fit right into your ear, it should be discarded after one or two uses because its slightly tacky consistency makes it a breeding ground for bacteria and other not-so-clean things. Also, ear putty does not have a tremendous attenuation factor so it’s not one that I recommend strongly if you’re interested in truly protecting your ears.

There are two kinds of earplugs: store-bought (as in the yellow foam plugs or the rubber cones you buy at the drug store) and custom-made. The store bought plugs are inexpensive, convenient and do a decent job of attenuating approximately 20 decibels. In other words, if you wear the foam plugs and encounter that 100 decibel sound, your ears will only perceive it at about 80 decibels. The drawback is that the foam plugs aren’t really comfortable for long periods of time and tend to "back out" requiring you to push them back into place.

Custom plugs, however, are exactly that - custom. They require an impression of your ears by a hearing health care professional (such as an audiologist or licensed hearing aid dispenser). Custom plugs can range in price from $50 to $150 p pair depending on what your order. Custom plugs will typically give you five to eight decibels more attenuation across most frequencies than the foam plugs. There are options when ordering custom plugs. There are solid plugs, filtered plugs, plugs with a leash connecting them so you can hang them around your neck when you’re not plying, plugs that are discreetly tinted to match your skin color or plugs that are wildly colored to make a fashion statement. Check your local yellow pages to see which audiology or hearing aid clinics offer these services. I especially recommend plugs for ringers who play at C6 and above (but it certainly won’t hurt other octaves either!). Two of my ringers have opted for custom plugs and are doing fabulously. They’ve also found other use for their ear plugs away from rehearsal: yard work, sleeping and even for meditation!

The consequences for lack of protection are several, but hearing loss and tinnitus (or ringing in the ears) are the most common. Unfortunatelyere are no real "cures" for tinnitus, but research is ever ongoing to try and offer better treatment. Several organizations have emerged in the last few years whose goal is to educate and train musicians about hearing healthcare and hearing conservation. Even the MTV generation is learning about hearing conservation thanks to several informative pieces profiling Hearing education and Awareness for Rockers (or H.E.A.R.).

We’re only given two ears and, if we’re lucky, they’ll last us a lifetime. As musicians, or even just as music appreciators, it really is within our capability to take care of our hearing and ensure optimal enjoyment for years.

Dana Thompson, MS, CF-A is an audiologist at the Portland Otologic Clinic in Portland, Oregon. She also has directed handbell choirs in the past. Dana provided a lecture about hearing conservation at the 1997 Director’s Conference in Spokane, Washington, and she welcomes your questions or comments. You can contact Dana at (503)233-5925

Vibrations, Winter 1999