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
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,
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
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
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
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
-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.