Today’s musicians often live with a painful catch-22: the music that they build their lives around may one day prevent them from being able to hear well enough to play! Across genres, music is all too often amplified without proper regard for hearing safety. While this excess sound can certainly damage the hearing of concertgoers, it is perhaps the most devastating for musicians who can lose their ability to perform if their hearing deteriorates.
If you are a musician it is critical to your livelihood that you protect your hearing. From the close-range noise of a cramped practice space to an arena stage in front of thousands, musicians are often putting their hearing at risk.
A Delicate Sense
Loud music can seem dramatic and passionate but it also holds the potential for great harm. Human hearing is a finely tuned sensory skill. Our ears are designed to detect very, very soft sounds as well as being able to triangulate the direction of a sound’s origin nearly instantaneously. This all helps us respond to others and the world around us.
In order to pick up sound with such skill and nuance, our hearing relies on tiny and fragile sensory cells that line the cochlea of the inner ear. Known as “hair cells,” these tiny feelers detect the vibrations in the air caused by sound waves. When they detect a sound, hair cells send a signal to the brain which processes the meaning of the incoming noise.
The tragedy is that hair cells are powerful but extremely delicate. Loud sounds have the potential to push hair cells beyond their limit and damage them. Unlike most other cells in the body, our hair cells never repair or replace themselves, meaning that damaged hair cells no longer contribute to our sense of hearing. When significant amounts of hair cells are no longer functioning, hearing loss becomes an issue.
Turned Up To Eleven
What is the threshold where hearing damage can occur? Permanent hearing injury can be caused by noise levels over 75 decibels (dB), about the sound of a vacuum cleaner. How long it takes for a loud sound to impact your hearing depends on how loud it is. At 85 dB, around the sound level of an active factory floor, hearing damage becomes an issue at around 8 hours of constant exposure, making it a health issue for workers. Louder sounds can only be tolerated for exponentially less and less time. A motorcycle operates at around 95 dB and will cause permanent hearing injury in only one hour of exposure.
Amplified concerts typically register in the range of 105-115 dB depending on the space and artist. At 105 dB, hearing is permanently damaged in only 10 minutes of exposure, while 115 dB does the same damage after only 30 seconds. Sounds projected at 120 dB and greater cause instantaneous permanent hearing damage. Musicians need to be acutely aware of the potential for their art to instigate this hearing harm and also understand the long-term effects it can have on their ability to play.
A Precautionary Tale
Tragically, hearing loss has cut short many people’s music careers, even those of some of the most famous musicians living today. Famously, Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath and Pete Townshend of The Who have spoken out about the ways their hearing loss limits their current endeavors. Hearing loss can make it difficult to sense the sound and timing of your own instrument as well as coordinate your playing with a band.
Hearing loss is becoming an issue for more and more musical celebrities, from Barbara Streisand to will.i.am. Long hours of practicing and performing without adequate sound protection have the potential to force your sense of hearing into a persistent decline. Worse, as hearing becomes more challenging, some people may respond by increasing the volume to hear “better.”
In It For the Long Haul
If you are passionate about music, make sure you can listen to and play the songs you love your whole life. For a lifetime of music, always wear hearing protection and consider investing in reusable custom earplugs. Fitted to your ear for maximum comfort and protection, custom earplugs dampen excess noise and keep your hearing the finely-tuned sense you depend upon.