Hearing the Sound of Music
Beethoven wrote the 9th Symphony while having it; Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich of Local 424 (Richmond, CA) suffers from it; and so does Americana musician and songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard of Local 433 (Austin, TX). It does not discriminate and it crosses all musical genres.
And what is it? It is hearing loss—loss of the sense most critical to a musician, his livelihood, his raison d’être.
The sense of hearing is one of the most abused and damaged parts of a musician’s body. Shockingly, noise-induced hearing loss affects anywhere from 30% to 50% of the professional music community. Hearing loss affects not only professional musicians but those who avidly enjoy listening to music, as well. Whether a person is a classical concert enthusiast, daily iPod wearer, or just enjoys the occasional heavy metal jam session, even the most occasional listener can be at risk.
To understand how hearing loss happens, you need to understand how sound affects a person’s ears. Noise is measured in decibels (dB); the louder the noise, the higher the decibel level. The decibel level and the amount of time spent exposed to noise determine the degree to which hearing is damaged.
According to OSHA Standards, continued exposure of unprotected ears to noise above 85 dB will cause gradual, permanent hearing loss. The louder the dB level, the less amount of time a person can be exposed before damage occurs. For example, if the music is 95 dB, there is only a two-hour window of exposure before nerve damage occurs; if the sound goes up to 100 dB, the time of exposure is just one hour. Due to overexposure to loud sound, many musicians and music lovers suffer from noise-induced, or nerve-related, hearing loss, which is caused by damage in the cochlea or the nerve pathway from the inner ear to the brain.
Though hearing loss can become more profound with age, no one is ever too young to suffer irreversible hearing loss. The following are indicators of hearing loss: ringing or buzzing (tinnitus) in the ear after exposure to noise (this can last up to 18 hours, or longer in more severe cases); slight muffling of sounds after exposure, making it difficult to understand people after leaving a noisy area; or difficulty understanding speech (you can hear all the words, but you can’t understand them all). If you have experienced any of these indicators, you may have already suffered some permanent hearing damage and should contact an audiologist.
While musicians are exposed to loud sounds and are therefore prone to hearing loss, the good news is that there are many ways that you can prevent hearing loss and protect your hearing. Prevention is the key. Awareness of the surrounding noise levels of your environment is the first step. For example, pit orchestra musicians can be more prone to noise-induced hearing loss than stage bands because of the intensity of the sounds in the pit. Stage monitors and amplifiers can do harm, not only to band members, but also to the sound engineers running the boards and to the fans listening to the show.
There are also preventive measures that musicians and listeners can take to protect their hearing. Custom earplugs are an ideal solution; however, they can be slightly more expensive than the more common noncustom, over-thecounter plugs. Custom-made plugs are shaped for individual ears and can have a filtering device placed that evenly attenuates sound, versus rolling off the high frequencies, as most noncustom or occluding plugs will do. Another option for savvy musicians or sound engineers is using in-ear monitors, versus floor wedge monitors. These single, dual, and triple drive devices allow sounds to come directly into the musician’s ear, eliminating ambient sound by up to 37 dB for much clearer sound quality than with stage monitors.
Finally, you should see a hearing healthcare provider. An audiologist can screen your hearing and help you pick appropriate noise reduction products for your specific needs. This easy, proactive measure can preserve your natural hearing. A hearing test is typically performed to see if any damage has already been done. Then, ear impressions are taken with a casting material to make the plugs or monitors specifically fit your ears. This is a great way to protect a musician’s most valuable asset, their hearing. To locate an audiologist in your area (including the US and Canada) visit the American Academy of Audiology website, www.Audiology.org, and click on the “Find an Audiologist” link.
Musicians cannot afford to ignore hearing protection because music—being able to hear it and create it—is your livelihood. Implement these preventative measures and seek professional hearing health care treatment. As spoken from the heart by Ray Wylie Hubbard: “They gave me back a world of sound. And I sound great!”
by Soriya Estes, Au.D., this article appeared first in the International Musician publication, March 2010