Musicians and music industry professionals rely on their sense of hearing more than most others. Ironically, the music that serves such a central role in their lives is also one of the greatest threats to their continued ability to pursue their chosen profession.
The inner ear is a highly tuned instrument. Over-exposure to loud sounds can damage the delicate, frequency-specific structures within, resulting in temporary hearing loss, which is also referred to as a temporary threshold shift. Permanent threshold shift can result from one single, intense exposure to a loud decibel or more moderately intense exposures repeated over time. There currently exists no medicine or surgery to correct damage to inner ear structures. Once these cells have been damaged, it is possible that they are damaged for life.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has developed standards that limit sound exposure for workers in industrial settings. When individuals are exposed to an average sound level of 90 decibels or greater per eight-hour shift, OSHA requires measures to reduce overall exposure. For every 5 extra decibels, the safe exposure period is reduced by one-half.
As an example, a professionally played violin can peak above 115 decibels. Based on OSHA regulations, if this level were continuous, exposure would be safe for only one-quarter of an hour. Although OSHA standards provide a solid reference point for musicians to monitor their exposures, dramatic fluctuations in the sound levels to which musicians are exposed make direct applicability of these standards difficult.
As a result, the current landscape leaves musicians (as well as their fans) to fend for themselves. The importance of education, regular evaluation and use of appropriate hearing protection cannot be over-emphasized.
When Loud is Too Loud
In the past, leaving a show or rehearsal with muffled hearing and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) was thought to be a sign of a great performance. But if the music inhibits your ability to carry on a conversation comfortably with an individual next to you, the general rule of thumb is that that’s too loud.
Research and experience has solidified the notion that ringing in the ears and temporary hearing loss are signs that some level of damage has occurred to the auditory structures. Therefore, exposures leading to this classic “after-show experience” are also classified as too loud. Appropriate hearing preservation steps should be taken for future encounters with similar acoustically intense environments.
Musicians’ Unique Protective Needs
Construction workers using heavy machinery, chainsaws and other loud pieces of equipment rely on foam earplugs or earmuffs to protect their hearing. These over-the-counter hearing protection devices are highly effective, but are obviously not practical for someone who needs to be able to hear slight variations in the frequency or intensity of music. Foam earplugs and most earmuffs attenuate, or reduce, high frequencies more than low frequencies, which leads to poor auditory representation of music.
As well, musicians must be careful not to “over protect” their hearing. If a musician cannot accurately monitor their instrument (whether it is a guitar, violin, or voice), there is a tendency to overplay or sing louder. Over time, this may result in injuries to the hands, arms, and/or vocal cords.
Generally speaking, the optimal choice for musicians is custom fit, flat-frequency response earplugs. In contrast to foam earplugs that attenuate high frequencies more than low frequencies, customized musicians’ hearing protection provides fairly equal attenuation across the frequency range. Either nine, 15 or 25 decibels of attenuation are available and all allow for excellent auditory representation of external sounds.
The professionals in the NYOG’s Hearing & Balance Center have the depth of expertise and breadth of experience to serve the unique needs of performing artists and these specialized devices. Finally, there exists an option for musicians interested in protecting their hearing that will not degrade the quality of their performance.