Fame, fortune, and screaming fans — these are a few of the words and phrases you’d employ in order to describe the reality of a professional musician. In spite of this, what you most likely wouldn’t think about is “hearing loss” or “tinnitus,” the not-so-enjoyable side-effects of all that celebrity, fortune, and screaming. The bittersweet paradox is, a musician’s hearing is what is most subject to injury from the performance of their art.
The truth is, musicians are nearly four times more likely to suffer from noise-induced hearing loss when compared with the average person, as stated by scientists at the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology. The research study also determined that professional musicians are up to 57% more likely to experience tinnitus — an ailment associated with a repeated ringing in the ears.
The cause: repeated exposure to loud noise. Over the years, loud noise will irreparably destroy the hair cells of the inner ear, which are the sensory receptors responsible for sending sound to the brain. Like an ample patch of grass worn out from frequent trampling, the hair cells can also be wiped out from repeated overexposure to loud noise – the significant difference, of course, being that you can’t grow new hair cells.
Just how loud are rock concerts?
To show the problem, hearing loss starts with recurrent exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels (decibels being a unit used to measure loudness). That may very well not mean very much to you, until you take into account the decibel levels associated with typical events:
- Whisper at 6 feet: 30 decibels (dB)
- Standard conversation at 3 feet: 60 – 65 (dB)
- Motorcycle: 100 dB
- Front row at a rock show: 120 to 150 dB
In non-technical terms, rock shows are literally ear-splittingly loud, and repetitive unguarded exposure can cause some serious damage, which, regretfully, many notable musicians have recently attested to.
Chris Martin, the lead vocalist for the music group Coldplay, has suffered with Tinnitus for many years. Martin said::
“Looking after your ears is unfortunately something you don’t think about until there’s a problem. I’ve had tinnitus for about 10 years, and since I started protecting my ears it hasn’t got any worse (touch wood). But I wish I’d thought about it earlier. Now we always use moulded filter plugs, or in-ear monitors, to try and protect our ears. You CAN use industrial headphones, but that looks strange at a party.”
Other notable musicians that suffer from hearing loss or tinnitus include Neil Young, Ozzy Osbourne, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Bono, Sting, Ryan Adams, and more, many of which convey regret that they hadn’t done more to take care of their ears through the course of their careers. Lars Ulrich from Metallica stated::
“If you get a scratch on your nose, in a week that’ll be gone. When you scratch your hearing or damage your hearing, it doesn’t come back. I try to point out to younger kids … once your hearing is gone, it’s gone, and there’s no real remedy.”
How musicians, and fans, can protect their ears
Even though musicians are at greater risk for developing hearing loss or tinnitus, the threat can be considerably lessened by employing protective measures. Considering the specialized needs of musicians — and the importance of protecting the detConsidering the unique needs of musicians — and the importance of preserving the fine details of sound — the first step is to make an appointment with an hearing specialist.
Here’s a classic mistake: musicians will frequently delay seeing an audiologist until they experience one or more of these symptoms:
- A ringing or buzzing noise in the ears
- Any pain or discomfort in the ears
- Difficulty comprehending speech
- Trouble following discussions in the presence of background noise
The concern is, when these symptoms are present, the damage has already been done. Therefore, the leading thing a musician can do to prevent long-term, permanent hearing loss is to schedule an appointment with an audiologist before symptoms are present.
If you’re a musician, an hearing specialist can recommend custom musicians’ plugs or in-ear-monitors that will give protection to your hearing without limiting your musical performance. As a musician, you have distinctive needs for hearing and hearing protection, and audiologists or hearing specialists are the professionals specifically trained to provide this custom made protection.
Additionally, bear in mind that it’s not only musicians at risk: concert-goers are just as vulnerable. So the next time you’re front row at a rock show, remember that 120 decibels of hair-cell-killing volume is pumping directly from the speakers right into your ears.