For those who play music, or even just love going to live concerts, music-induced hearing loss (MIHL), a type of hearing loss that results from listening to loud levels of music over extended periods of time, is a very real risk. Unfortunately, because many people don’t think of music as “noise,” they underestimate how loud (and damaging to their ears) it can be. The good news is that there are steps musicians and those who listen to loud music can take to protect their hearing from damage.
Musicians have a much higher risk of hearing loss than the general public because they are exposed to loud sounds on a regular basis. In fact, musicians are nearly four times more likely than the general public to develop noise-induced hearing loss, and 57% more likely to develop tinnitus (ringing in the ears). The noise levels in rehearsal spaces, recording studios, and especially performance venues often reach extremely high volumes, but even the noise from practicing instruments at home can damage hearing over time.
And while many may think the risk of noise-induced hearing loss must mostly apply to rock musicians, the truth is it affects every kind of musician across the board (as well as producers, conductors, and teachers). While the average indoor rock concert averages around 115 to 120 decibels, a symphony concert can be as high as 135 decibels. Marching bands can exceed 130 decibels, also putting those musicians in danger of hearing loss. The general consensus on “safe sound exposure” is between 80 and 90 decibels along with the idea that one should limit anything at 115 decibels to less than a minute of listening time.
Unfortunately, because the biggest part of their job requires them to hear the music, many musicians choose not to wear earplugs out of fear that they will muffle the music or make it difficult to hear the nuances in quality and clarity. But for musicians who want to maintain healthy hearing for as long as possible, ear protection is paramount. Without it, they may experience the very thing they’re trying to avoid.
Many professional musicians have spoken up about their hearing loss and need to now wear hearing aids to raise awareness and encourage other musicians to wear earplugs when playing music. Dave Grohl (Nirvana and the Foo Fighters) revealed that he has Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) that has forced him to read lips for the past 20 years.
He’s not alone. Famous musicians including Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Chris Martin (Coldplay), Paul Stanley (KISS), Brian Wilson (Beach Boys), Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Neil Young, James Hetfield (Metallica), Thomas Bangalter (Daft Punk), Phil Collins, Anthony Kiedis (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Moby, and even Barbara Streisand have all publicly stated that they suffer from hearing loss.
Sting is another musician who developed hearing loss and started wearing hearing aids. He’s now very involved with Hear the World, a foundation that promotes equal opportunities to help children with hearing loss in low- and middle- income countries, including access to solutions like hearing aids.
It’s not a surprise since, according to a Finnish study, “52% of classical musicians and 30% of rock musicians were found to have some degree of permanent hearing loss.”
Anyone who is exposed to noises above 80 decibels for a sustained period of time will benefit greatly from wearing ear protection, including musicians who should wear them when they practice as well as they perform.
Regular earplugs, usually made of foam or silicone, are designed to reduce all sounds by sealing off your outer ear canal, which obviously isn’t ideal for a musician. There are, however, different types of musician earplugs specially designed to reduce noise levels while retaining clarity.
Thanks to advancements in technology, there are several types of musician earplugs to choose from so they can pick which features work best for their needs, and almost all of them are discreet and comfortable to wear for long periods of time. Options include earplugs that:
Reduce all frequencies equally
Allow the musician to choose the level of sound reduction that works best for them
Lessen the volume of loud music while still allowing the musician to hear all of the instruments, including their own, on the stage
Custom-fit earplugs, which are more expensive but offer the best protection
In-Ear Monitors (IEMs), which allow musicians to hear themselves without having to rely on stage monitor speakers while also blocking out background noise, can absolutely offer hearing protection and are used by lots of musicians who want to be able to monitor their performance—just at a much lower decibel level.
IEMs can be custom-molded or purchased over the counter and are usually far more effective in protecting against loud noises than a traditional drugstore earplug.
Musicians and loud music go together like rhythm and blues, rock and roll, honkey and tonk, so it’s imperative that musicians do everything possible to keep their hearing healthy. Here are a few hearing protection tips for musicians of all kinds:
Always wear ear protection when practicing or performing. If you only do one thing on this list, this should be the one.
Use customized earplugs designed for musicians, if possible.
Use in-ear monitors when on stage.
Give your ears a break. You may not be able to rest them for 5 to 10 minutes every hour when performing, but make an effort to do so during practices.
Turn down the volume. That can mean literally on your personal listening device or amp or by choosing a spot on the stage or at a concert that is away from (or behind) the loudest sound source.
Get your hearing checked once a year.
All musicians are at risk for noise-induced hearing loss, but by taking a few precautions, they can prevent damage to their ears and give themselves the gift of music for many years to come.
Learn more about why hearing health matters.
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