Richard Middleton
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"Minimizing Hearing Loss"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, November 2001.

Most people underestimate the potentially harmful effects of loud sounds on their hearing. As musicians, it's especially important for us to understand these effects and the occupational hazard they represent, for once permanent hearing loss occurs, it cannot be reversed. Fortunately, there are simple preventive measures you can take to help maintain your hearing for many years to come.

Acoustic musicians often dismiss the risks of hearing loss because they assume that only loud amplified music poses a threat. But it's not only sounds which are obviously very loud that cause permanent damage, but also sustained exposure to less intense sound levels over long periods of time.

For example, some jazz bassists begin to experience hearing loss because of their frequent and prolonged exposure to the constant sound of the drummer hitting the ride cymbal (which bassists often stand near so they can hear it clearly). A violin can produce sounds in the 84-103 dB range, and exposure to sounds of 90-95 dB or higher for prolonged periods can cause permanent damage; the risk is compounded by the fact that the violin is positioned so near the player's ear. Wind and brass instruments are capable of producing even louder sounds, as are percussion instruments. For the musician who rehearses and performs regularly, whether they play folk, classical or rock, the risks of hearing loss are serious.

The most effective method for reducing the risk of hearing loss is to use earplugs. You can purchase inexpensive, disposable foam-type earplugs at most drugstores, as well as plugs made of wax, silicone, or rubber. These plugs can provide adequate protection from damaging sound levels, however they are not the best choice for musicians, as they often attenuate more than necessary, and they make it difficult to hear the full range of musical frequencies, a serious drawback for musicians.

A more expensive and far more effective approach is to obtain custom earplugs called earmolds. These resemble the earmolds that one sees on hearing aids, which are custom-fitted to the specific contours of your ear canal. They do a much better job of attenuating and filtering sound in a way that musicians can live with, and they are more comfortable to wear than the over-the-counter variety. To obtain custom earmolds, you must visit an audiologist. They will make impressions of your ear canals which are then to a laboratory that manufactures the final molds.

An added advantage to earmolds is that some can be further customized to an individual's specific needs through the use of added filters. These come in a variety of "strengths," and can be used to help maintain a more balanced and natural frequency response, reducing the "coloration" of the music by the earmold. Filters have also been proven to reduce the fatigue that comes with exposure to noise.

Whether you use inexpensive, disposable plugs or custom earmolds, it's important to be aware of the indicators that you are being exposed to potentially harmful noise levels. If you notice any loss of hearing, no matter how temporary, you are already at risk. Over time, even temporary bouts of hearing loss can become cumulative, and eventually your ears lose their ability to recover their normal function. Ringing in the ears in another sign that you're being exposed to potentially harmful sound levels, especially if the ringing persists for longer periods. If you notice such signs, be sure to give your ears some time to rest before further sound exposure. After rehearsing or performing, or after attending a loud event, give your ears time to recover.

Be aware of loud sounds that occur in other environments as well, including machinery, engines, power tools and shop equipment, other industrial and construction noise, sirens, airplanes, loud stereos or televisions, sporting events, fireworks displays -- any of these sounds could pose a potential risk to your hearing. And remember, the effects of noise on your hearing are cumulative, and can be adding up without your being aware of them at first. By the time you notice permanent damage, it's already too late to remedy the situation.

Here's a list to provide an objective perspective on relative sound levels:

Level of sound at which sustained exposure
can cause permanent damage 90-95 dB

Threshold at which sound causes pain 125 dB

Loud singer 3 feet away 70 dB

Loud piano 92-95 dB

Violin 84-103 dB

Flute 85-111 dB

Trombone 85-114 dB

Bass drum roll 106 dB

Amplified rock music at 4-6 ft 120-137 dB



Wise Ears Campaign

National Hearing Conservation Association

Portions of this article were adapted from information offered at the websites listed above, and from an article which appeared in the December 2000 issue of International Musician, the official journal of the American Federation of Musicians.

Copyright 2001 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).