Ludwig van Beethoven said, “Music can change the world” and 200 years later, science has proven him to be correct. Of course, we don’t need science to know the joy that music brings into our lives—that it helps us feel emotions or escape when needed, gets us excited for a workout, or evokes feelings of nostalgia.
What science does tell us, however, is that technically the reason we enjoy listening to music is because it activates parts of the reward center in our brain. It also stimulates our brain because “decoding” music is actually a complex task that requires “the auditory system to integrate the sequentially ordered sounds into a coherent musical perception” (similiar to the way our brains understand verbal conversations).
There are more benefits to listening to music than just giving our brains a healthy workout. It can help lower anxiety, boost energy, enhance exercise performance, lighten one’s mood, and have an overall positive effect on one’s mind, body, and health.
Still, while there’s nothing quite like going to hear live music at a concert or blasting a pop song during a workout, it is important to note that listening to loud music for an extended period of time can cause lasting damage to your hearing.
Most people know that a loud concert can potentially damage our ears and that earplugs are advised (even if not all of us follow that guidance), but the damage doesn’t occur only at concerts—listening to loud sounds through earphones can also cause harm.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIH), “Nearly one in four (24 percent) of U.S. adults aged 20 to 69 years has features of his or her hearing test in one or both ears that suggest noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).”
Noise-induced hearing loss is commonly caused by exposure to excessively loud sounds, and results in symptoms like an inability to hear high-pitched sounds, muffled or distorted speech, and tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ear).
Unfortunately, the damage from noise-induced hearing loss is permanent.
It’s also entirely preventable.
Noise-induced hearing loss can occur after long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels (dB). Sounds below 70 dB are considered “safe” and unlikely to cause hearing loss.
It won’t be shocking to learn that concerts can range from 100 to 120 dBs (and sometimes even higher). In comparison, typically city traffic is around 85 decibels and a lawnmower is 90 dB.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the following exposure times to loud sounds to prevent hearing damage:
85 dB: City traffic or a leaf blower—Up to 8 hours of exposure
100 dB: Afootball game or approaching subway train—Up to 15 minutes of exposure
110 dB: Shouting or barking in the ear or the max volume on a personal listenign device—Up to 2 minutes of exposure
120 dB or higher: Standing beside or near sirens (120 dB), firecrackers (140–15 dB)—Even short exposures can cause immediate damage
Needless to say, most concerts last longer than 15 minutes, which means every time you attend one, you’re putting your hearing at risk.
As noted before, the good news is that noise-induced hearing loss is completely preventable. This means you don’t need to stop going to concerts; instead, you just need to make a little effort to protect your hearing while enjoying the music.
A few ways to protect your hearing (and prevent hearing loss) at concerts include:
Wear earplugs. This is the number one thing you can do to protect your ears in any situation where you’re exposed to loud sounds. The best earplugs to buy are the ones that are comfortable and you’ll wear regularly. If you go to concerts often, consider getting custom earplugs which can provide a better listening experience because they don’t compromise the sound quality. If you don’t have those, foam earplugs will also do the trick.
Stay at least 500 feet away from he speakers, stages, and other sources of noise. This guideline comes from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) who advises that if this is too far for you (or not possible), be as far away from the speakers as possible. Usually, the smaller the venue, the higher the decibel level.
Use a decibel measuring app to find a location where the decibel level does not measure above 85 dB. Download a decibel measuring app (just search “decible measuring app” in the app store) and use that to measure the noise levels at the show. If you don’t have an app, monitor the volume levels. If the music feels uncomfortable loud or causes ringing in your ears, move to a different and quieter area.
Take a listening break. Try to step outside and away from the music for at least a couple of minutes every hour to give your ears a chance to recover.
Choose outdoor concerts when possible. Most outdoor venues have fewer surfaces for sound vibrations to reverberate off of, which means lower decibel levels, sometimes as much as 30 decibels lower.
The most common earplugs (and the ones you’ll often be given for free at a concert) are foam earplugs. These are absolutely better for protection against loud noises than wearing no ear plugs at all, but they don’t always fit well and can fall out of your ear.
Silicone earplugs are a step up from foam earplugs because they’re reusable, durable, and are less likely to push earwax deeper into the ear canal.
Here are a few other things to consider when choosing earplugs:
Noise Reduction Rating (NRR): Look for earplugs with a suitable NRR to protect your hearing without compromising the listening experience. The NRR indicates the level of noise reduction the earplugs provide.
High-Fidelity Earplugs: Opt for earplugs that offer flat attenuation, meaning they reduce all frequencies equally, maintaining the original sound quality.
Comfort: Choose earplugs made from soft and hypoallergenic materials that fit securely in your ears without causing discomfort during extended use. After all, if you don’t wear them because they aren’t comfortable, they’re not doing you any good.
Reusability: Some earplugs are disposable, while others are reusable and come with cleaning instructions. Decide which option aligns with your preferences and environmental concerns.
Before purchasing any earplugs, read reviews and consider trying out different options to find the ones that best suit your needs and provide the most enjoyable concert experience while protecting your hearing.
Listening to music on your stereo or through your headphones for long periods of times or at loud volumes can be harmful to your hearing, but there’s no reason to give it up if you take these ear protection precautions:
Check your volume levels. Try to keep the volume between 60 and 70 decibels (usually 60% of the maximum volume). And don’t worry about not being able to hear the music as well; different frequencies are actually more effective at different volume levels, so a lower volume can actually enhance the listening experience. Not sure if your volume levels are too loud? There are apps you can download and if you have an iPhone, you can check “Headphone Audio Levels” in the Health app. Also, a general rule of thumb is that if someone standing a few feet away from you can hear the sounds coming from your headphones, it’s too loud.
Use noise-canceling headphones. Lots of headphones now come with this feature which blocks out ambient noise so that you’re not raising the volume level in order to compete with the environment.
Don’t wear earphones in loud environments. When we’re in noisier places, we tend to compensate by turning up the volume.
Take listening breaks. Give your ears time to rest and recover, especially when you’re listening to louder music. Experts suggest limiting your listening through personal hearing devices to 60 minutes a day.
Learn more about why hearing health matters.
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