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What do Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton, and Ludwig van Beethoven have in common, besides all being musicians? All of these musicians experienced – as a result of playing the music they love – permanent hearing loss.

When I treat musicians, I have to tell them a sad but unavoidable fact of life – the very music they love to play may be damaging their hearing. When a musician is exposed to loud music they can suffer from noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) which produces ringing in the ears, sometimes referred to as tinnitus. With similar ongoing exposure permanent hearing loss can result.

The hearing loss can happen to any musician, whether they play in a rock band, in a symphony orchestra, in a chamber music group, or just play at home when rehearsing. Any sound with an amplitude (volume) of over 85 decibels (dB) can cause hearing loss if you are exposed to it for long periods of time. While 85dB may sound like a high level of sound, even rehearsal situations can produce these levels. Rock musicians and classical alike are both exposed to excessive amplitude of sound; an unamplified violin reaches 103dB and an electric guitar produces 120dB. It has been estimated that musicians do more damage to their ears during the hours that they rehearse alone than they do in the short times they spend on stage.

Fortunately, there is something you can do to protect your hearing – invest in a pair of earplugs; not the cheap foam earplugs you find in drugstores, but high-quality musicians earplugs. The first musicians earphones were invented by Etymotic Research, and other manufacturers still use their design to create specialized ear protection for musicians. Unlike the cheap Styrofoam earplugs that simply block sound, musician ear protection customized for you by your audiologist allows you to hear your normal full range of sound, just at a reduced volume ensuring your hearing is protected. You can find universal-fit musicians earplugs in most stores that sell musical instruments, starting at about $15 a pair. For musicians that want to protect their hearing and hear the full range of their music, I recommend custom-molded earplugs with Etymotic filters. Comfortable even with extended wear for long periods of time, custom-molded earplugs block undesirable sound allowing the music to come through undistorted and without damaging hearing. Yes, they’re more expensive than the earplugs sold in music stores, but since hearing damage is irreversible, how much is your ability to hear the music you play worth to you?