Hearing Loss & Protection for Musicians

Pete Townsend of ‘The Who’ was the first high-profile act to vocalize that, given enough time, almost every musician, whether Rock or Classical, will eventually blow their ears while they are blowing away their audience.  

Townsend, has permanently lost a substantial portion of his hearing and now must rely upon others to tune his guitar.  He also suffers from tinnitus, a ringing-like noise in his ears that drones on incessantly, 24 hours a day.  Jeff Beck, lamenting about his own tinnitus, described it as like “a guy at a window with his nails I could put up with.  This is worse.” 

Townsend’s solo voice, in steering people away from the ‘fortissimo’ to instead adopt the ‘decrescendo’, all-the-while adding hearing protection into the fray, has grown into a chorus; joined by the likes of Sting, Neil Young, will.i.am, Noel Gallagher, Barbara Steisand, Phil Collins and Danny Elfman, among others, these artists having also lost hearing and have gladly lent their voice’s to this cause. 

Political willpower has also been successful in enacting legislation, whereby personal music players sold within their jurisdictions have set limits on their maximum intensity. These policies were wrought in response to studies which found that over 25% of school-aged children are affected by irreversible hearing loss.  At the high school level, some exhibited losses equal to those found in career construction workers and war veterans.  This number continues to grow.

The fix is quick with nothing more than a click: Volumes set at less than 50% on personal music players are fine, regardless of the type of headphones. However at 3/4, permanent damage may occur with less than 90 minutes of use per day and near or at their maximum that number falls to as low as three minutes per day! 

The origin of noise induced hearing loss arises within the organ of hearing called the cochlea.  Lined with between 20-30,000 hair cells, these fragile structures are the receptors that react to the sound coming in through ears and can be likened to the cones and rods found on the retina that react to light.  When over-taxed, they will temporarily stop working, a sign of which is the dulled hearing and ringing in the ears many experience after a loud concert.  If the assault continues, then permanent damage is unavoidable.  

Dry statistic #1:
 Music Induced Hearing Loss (MIHL) is more common in classical musician’s, at 58%, than with rock musician’s, at 37%.  It is not that surprising when you consider their practice time and proximity to other musicians.  

Dry statistic #2:  Up to 74% of all musician’s also suffer from problems of reduced pitch and loudness perception, which acts to undo years of steadfast practice.  The same percentage also applies to tinnitus and lowered tolerance for loud(er) sounds, to the point where even a ringing telephone can be painful.

Interesting fact #1: If you like the music, regardless of genre, there is a small statistically relevant observance that hearing loss will be lessened -but only slightly, so don’t use this as an excuse.

Interesting fact #2: Ozzy Osbourne has incurred minimal amounts of hearing loss, when taking into account all of his exposure to excessively loud music…nobody can explain it! But then what other musician would you expect to defy logic?

Interesting (and disquieting) fact #3:  Depending on the instrument you play, certain types of hearing protection will actually increase your chance of incurring hearing loss!!  This I will explain a bit further on, so read on.

So what is a poor musician to do with all this before them?  Mimicking Boo Radley is certainly not an option, so the other one is hearing protection.
I have been working with musicians for over twenty years and the same comment keeps getting repeated, namely that ‘hearing protection kills the fidelity of music and vocalists complain that they sound like they have their head in a bucket.’ This is all quite true with foam earplugs and inexpensive music store products, but is completely untrue when using products that are made specifically for musicians or concert-goers, who want clean vibrant hearing without the ear-splitting volumes.
At Murray Hearing we have products that are at the same time, custom moulded for absolute comfort, deliver true high-fidelity sound and won’t give vocalists that head-in-a-barrel sound.  Each cashew-sized mould is individually hand-made and at the fitting its fidelity is checked using an in-situ measurement technique.  Depending upon the instrument or whether or not vocals are in the mix, they are further tuned at the clinic.
Since you read on: foam earplugs can actually increase hearing loss with instruments which make direct contact with the dense structures of the skull, teeth or jaw, where it is then delivered to the cochlea .  If there is a large volume of air between it and the eardrum, of which their usually is, it can actually magnify the intensity and subsequently hearing loss, more so than it nothing at all is used. 
Hearing loss is confining, meddlesome and maddening to those who have to endure its restrictive affects, but if your livelihood or passions are in its crosshairs, then those negative affects are exponentially increased.
Two things only should one take away from this blog:  Turn it down and if that’s not possible, then plug it up.

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