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Always Wear Protection

Ear protection...the one defense we have against hearing loss. As musicians, our hearing is our most valuable asset, and so we must protect that at all costs. It’s scary to think that 60% of the inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are hearing impaired. These are all people whose lives rely on their ability to hear. The easiest and most effective way to prevent any extra hearing loss is to wear earplugs whenever we’re in loud environments.

First, bear with me for a very brief anatomy lesson of the ear. What you hear starts as sound waves that travel into your outer ear, the part of the ear that you can see. From there it proceeds down the ear canal where it hits the eardrum, which acts very similar to a real drum by reverberating the sound. The eardrum vibrates bones within the ear that bring the sound to the inner ear, which contains the cochlea. Now here’s where the real permanent damage begins. Inside the snail-shaped cochlea are lots of very, very tiny hairs that are stimulated whenever a sound is produced. These hairs’ vibrations are picked up by the auditory nerve, which is when you perceive the sounds as talking, music, noise, etc.

If a sound is too loud it can literally bend over the hairs in your inner ear, and they may never return to their original state. Once a hair is damaged, it can never be repaired, and it never grows back. This damage can occur with a one time blast of extremely loud sound, or it can occur gradually with exposure to just regularly loud noise, such as repeated rock concerts.

As more and more damage occurs, everything will start to sound muffled and/or you’ll get a ringing sound in your ears. I’m sure everyone has experienced this at least temporarily after going to see a show. While most times this may last only a couple of hours after a show, if you keep doing this repeatedly, it will become permanent.

How loud is too loud you may ask? According to OSHA guidelines (the people who make all the work-related safety rules), anything above 90dB is loud enough to require ear protection, and ear professionals start worrying at 85dB. And so, a quick vocab word: A dB, or decibel, is the measure of sound intensity. 0dB is the threshold of hearing where we can no longer hear sound. Above that, every 3dB increase is doubling the volume. And to give you an idea as to how these numbers relate to everyday life, underneath are some common sounds with their common decibel level.

And to berate you with another list, there’s a maximum amount of acceptable times that a person can hear sound before permanent damage occurs. It starts with 16 hours as being an acceptable amount of time exposed to 80dB. From there, for every 5dB increase, the amount of time is roughly cut in half. See box on right.

Now, you may ask, “Who in the world is going to spend only a minute at a rock concert!?” And that’s a valuable concern. So, here’s where you get to take some responsibility for yourself. Wear earplugs! Sometimes that’s the only step you can take to protect your hearing.

There are a variety of different types of earplugs to choose from. When shopping for earplugs, be sure to check out the NRR rating. That’s the Noise Reduction Rating, and it tells, well, how much noise the earplugs reduce in terms of decibels. The higher the number, the better.

The most common types of earplugs are the industrial foam plugs. These are the cheapest (usually only a buck or two), easiest to find (at most drugstores) and cut out the most amount of noise. However, people usually complain about them being “muffled” sounding. This is because they cut out high frequencies the most making it harder to distinguish talking or singing. They do, however, give you the absolute highest amount of protection short of wearing the big ear muff protectors

The next best earplugs are the ER earplugs. These are the types that are plastic-y and have the three ridges that go into the ear and have a small point that sticks out. These are much better at reducing all frequencies the same and will not make everything sound muffled. These usually run about $20 and can be found at most music stores.

The best earplugs for musicians are custom made using an imprint of your ear. To get these, you must see an audiologist who will make them for you. They can be pretty pricey, around $150, but they will be the most comfortable to wear and last you a long time. They are the absolute best at reducing all frequencies the same amount so you can still hear clearly, which is important while performing. They’re also a lot cheaper than hearing aids.

If you forget to bring any earplugs to a concert, there’s always the good standby of stuffing tissue in your ears. While some experts say this is useless and not worth it, if there’s nothing else around, the tissue will still help reduce the sound by almost 7dB, which is better than nothing.

And earplugs aren’t just for watching a concert. You should be wearing them while playing on stage too. For this it’s recommended to just dish out the extra dough and get better earplugs than just the foam ones. If you’re concerned about not being able to hear clearly, keep in mind that your ears will adjust, and the earplugs will help keep out any extraneous noise (such as screaming fans) so you’ll hear yourself better. And if you still think that earplugs make everything sound “too muffly”, just imagine having that muffly feeling 24 hours a day, which is what will happen if you don’t protect your hearing.

Also, remember earplugs are not just for concerts. There are a lot of other activities that you should wear earplugs for. Such as mowing the lawn and using power tools. If you work at a factory, you’ll most likely want to have a pair on hand if it gets loud. While I’m not suggesting to wear earplugs all the time, like riding on The El (though there are times they’d be nice), try to have a pair handy with you at all times in case something comes up. Most good earplugs come with small carrying cases that fit in your pocket so you can take them everywhere.

There are ways to reduce the sound level of everyday living without wearing earplugs which will (cont. on last page) help keep your hearing agile. During band practice...okay, wear earplugs, but also keep your amps at a low volume. Give enough space in volume in case there’s any accidental feedback. If it’s hard to hear over the drums, put muffling pads on them. Not only will this help protect your hearing, but you’ll try and hit the drums louder making you a better drummer (a win-win situation).

When you’re at a concert and try to talk to someone, if you have to yell to be heard, it’s better to just wait until after the concert to talk. Having someone yell in your ear is very damaging and not worth it. In fact, if you have to yell to be heard, everything else is too loud. Try to stand away from the speakers. Also, try to find a quiet spot every once in a while to let your ears relax. Try to step outside for 5 or 10 minutes between sets, or if you feel your ears hurting, take a short break. This is especially important if you’re the one performing. If you’re playing all night and you get breaks, find a quiet backroom where you can rest your ears in-between sets.

When listening to music in your car or headphones or home stereo, keep the volume down. There’s little perceptible difference in volume between 85 and 100dB, except that 100dB is 32 times worse than 85dB. And if you think that’s bad, if you really crank it up, 115dB is 1,000 times worse than 85dB. Something to think about when you’re jamming along to your favorite CDs.

Now you know some ways to protect your hearing, but what are the symptoms of hearing loss and what can you do if you notice them?

Some signs that your hearing is declining are:
-You might start to get that “muffly” sound I was talking about. Also, your ears might begin feeling full or having extra pressure on them.
-You have difficulty following conversations, especially in noisy places like restaurants and you find yourself asking people to repeat what they said often.
-You find yourself talking in the telephone with specifically one ear.
-You seem to have the TV or radio turned up louder than everyone else.
-And finally, if you have a high pitched ringing or a buzzing sound in your ears constantly that’s a sure sign of tinnitus, which I will talk about as well.

If you experience any of these symptoms on a regular basis, go see a doctor right away! The average person waits seven years after hearing loss starts to go see a doctor. Don’t be one of those people, go to see an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) or an otologist or neurotologist (ear specialists).

Also, everyone should make sure to see an audiologist on a regular basis. An audiologist will test your hearing, and if you continue to see him, will be able to monitor any hearing loss you are getting. He can also make custom earplugs for you that will reduce all frequencies equally. Think of going to see an audiologist like an artist going to see an eye doctor. An artist can’t be expected to do great paintings if his eyesight is blurry, just like a musician can’t be expected to produce great music if he can’t hear clearly.

Tinnitus can be just as bad as hearing loss. Tinnitus is when you have a ringing or buzzing sound in your ears constantly. It may not be noticeable if you’re listening to music or having a conversation, but when it’s totally silent in a room, the noise can drive you mad. And the worse you let it get, the more annoying it will be. Lots of musicians get this, including Pete Townshend who speaks out about it fervently. For people like Townshend, the sound can become so unbearable that they can’t even play guitar because it aggravates the noise.

There is no way to get rid of tinnitus permanently, but there are some ways to relieve some of the noise. It’s important to stay healthy. Alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and recreational drugs can aggravate tinnitus. Stress, fatigue and dehydration also worsens the problem.

Once noise-induced hearing damage has been done, it’s impossible to reverse, so it’s important to take care of your ears as much as you can. It’s never too late to start protecting your ears, and it’s never too early to start getting your hearing checked. If you’re self consious of how you look when wearing earplugs or keeping volumes low, just imagine how you’ll look when you’re wearing hearing aids. If you’re looking for more information about hearing, check out the H.E.A.R. website at www.hearnet.com, which is geared toward the rock musician, or the House Ear Institute, with a lot of technical data at www.hei.org.

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