Making music should be relaxing and enjoyable, but it doesn’t come without risk. Still, sensible measures can be taken to avoid common musician’s ailments, such as joint pain, eye strain, and backache as well as an increasingly well-documented problem that affects rock and orchestral musicians alike—hearing loss.
Although a certain amount of hearing loss is expected as we age, excessive noise exposure is the most common cause of deafness. Loud music has the potential to cause both temporary and permanent hearing impairment. Whether you’re jamming in front of a hefty Fender amp or seated in front of the brass section on a bandstand, the music our souls crave isn’t always good for our ears.
Noise is measured in units called decibels. Research has shown that prolonged exposure to noises louder than 85 decibels is dangerous to the ears. To give you some idea of how loud 85 decibels is, consider that the noise produced by a vacuum cleaner, a handsaw, and even a noisy, conversation-filled room is around 85 decibels.
It should come as no surprise that a typical rock concert is louder, at around 110 decibels. But did you know that a band concert can be even louder, producing as much as 120 decibels? Even the beautiful, delicate music of violins and violas can reach dangerous levels. The longer a person is exposed to the loud noise, the greater the potential for eventual hearing loss. The League for the Hard of Hearing suggests that exposure to more than 110 decibels for 90 seconds is enough to damage the ears.
Specifically, loud music damages the cochlea, a snail-shaped organ of the inner ear. Tiny hair cells in the cochlea transform sound vibrations into nerve impulses that are sent to the brain. The hairs are essential for hearing and are commonly damaged during loud music concerts or lengthy practice sessions. Vibrations from loud music excessively bend the hairs, and while these hairs have the ability to repair themselves, extreme noise eventually does irreversible damage.
Symptoms of permanent hearing damage include a loud ringing or buzzing in the ear (called tinnitus) and the sensation that people are speaking in muffled tones. These effects might be familiar to anyone who has come away from a loud rock concert, only to notice they dissipate as the ears heal themselves. For those beginning to suffer from what’s often called a permanent shift of hearing, the symptoms will persist for long periods of time.
Other warning signs of hearing loss include ear pain, playing the stereo or TV louder than others, or being able to hear better with one ear than the other. If these symptoms occur, you should consult a medical professional immediately to discuss further treatment and prevention.
Because permanent hearing loss cannot be repaired, only compensated for with hearing devices, steps should be taken to prevent hearing loss from becoming too severe. Below are some tips and suggestions to protect your hearing so you can play the music you love for as long as possible.
4 Tips to Prevent Hearing Loss
1. Wear Ear Plugs: Ear plugs will effectively cut down the intensity of the decibel level that reaches your inner ear while still allowing you to hear other people and instruments around you.
2. Lower the Volume: When leisurely playing an amplified instrument, or even if you’re just listening to the radio, turning the volume dial down low will protect your hearing in the long run. Levels below 85 decibels are safe. Common household noises such as a hair dryer (60 to 80 decibels), machine tools (80 decibels), or an air conditioner (70 decibels) can act as a guide.
3. Moderation: Obviously, it’s hard to avoid loud music if you enjoy performing it. However, be aware of how often you play at certain volumes and, if possible, avoid exposure to any loud noises for 16 to 18 hours after a performance.
4. Take a Break: This tip is as simple as it sounds. Take 10 to 15 minute “noise breaks” so that your ears aren’t constantly bombarded with loud sounds for prolonged periods.