The list of musicians who suffer from hearing loss is long and full of names you might recognize. Huey Lewis, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Pete Townshend, Ozzy Osbourne, Chris Martin and Neil Young are just a few examples of famous musicians who suffer from hearing loss and/or tinnitus (ringing in the ears). It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that these rockers, with their loud music and partying, have paid a price in the form of their hearing ability.
Classical Musicians Have More Hearing Loss than Rock Musicians
It may surprise you to hear, though, that classical musicians actually suffer more hearing loss than rock and roll musicians. How can this be? Well, while rock musicians’ concerts are of course louder than classical musicians’ concerts, the rockers stand behind the main speaker arrays that reach the incredibly loud volumes. While they’re still getting a hefty dose of loud sound, it’s actually not as loud as many audience members experience it.
Classical musicians tend to practice and rehearse more frequently than rock musicians, and they tend to teach lessons. So, while volume levels are never as extreme as they get at rock concerts, classical musicians make up for it with frequency of exposure. Even levels as low as 70 dBA (that’s 70 decibels A-weighted, as a measure of ambient sound level) can cause hearing loss over extended periods of exposure. Add up the hours that classical musicians spend with sound at or above that level, and it’s a recipe for noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). So, what can we do to protect ourselves from hearing loss?
Know When You’re Being Exposed
Many people think that if the sounds they’re hearing aren’t at painfully loud levels, then they’re not at risk for hearing loss. This is simply untrue. Any sound at or above 85 dBA can cause hearing loss, and even lower levels can cause hearing loss when sustained for long periods of time. For reference, 85 dBA is about the volume level of a gas-powered lawn mower.
There are numerous apps that use smartphones’ microphones to display your environment’s dBA. Use one of these apps to check the levels in your environment and use it to turn down your stereo, television or amplifier; or put in earplugs if you are not in control of the sound level. Remember that the microphone of your phone needs to be at about the same distance from the sound source as your ear, to get an accurate assessment of what dBA level is actually reaching your ear. For example, if you’re curious about how loud your viola is while you’re playing it, setting your phone on the table to get a reading is not an accurate measurement for what is actually coming into your ear, which is right next to the viola. The closer you are, the louder the sound is to your ear.
Custom Molded Earplugs
Custom molded earplugs are an incredible asset to musicians. Many of us have had the experience of wearing foam earplugs or earmuffs. While these definitely reduce sound levels, they do so at the expense of an accurate depiction of the frequency range. This is because they reduce high-frequency sounds much more than low-frequency sounds. Any musician who has tried to perform a delicate passage of music with foam earplugs in can tell you that it doesn’t quite work. Singers, especially, will be very disoriented by the amount of sound that seems to come from inside their heads than from outside.
Custom molded earplugs will be made exactly to the shape of your ear. They can serve a variety of purposes, so if your goal is to play music with them, a hearing care professional will provide you with a different sort of earplug than if you wanted them for, say, a shooting range. For musicians, these are really the only way to go. A degree of attenuation (volume reduction) will be chosen for your specific purpose. If you’re the violist from our example above, your earplugs should attenuate less than if you are a drummer.
It should go without saying, but of course any time you are at a concert, you should wear ear protection. There are very few concerts that are performed at safe listening levels, so whether you’re using custom fit earplugs or foam ones, use them and keep your most precious tools functioning as best they can!