Hear no music. Play no music

Hear no music. Play no music

“I have unwittingly helped to invent and refine a type of music that makes its principal proponents deaf. It takes time, but it happens.” – Pete Townshend.

It’s a pretty well know fact among music lovers that listening to music too loudly will make you deaf. At least, that’s what my Gran always used to tell me!

But of course, it’s just another one of those grown-up sayings, right? Us musicians, we hear it a lot, think about it sometimes, but mostly we just ignore any well-intended advice – and I can hear just fine, thank you very much.

Besides, if loud music is bad for you, why is it that some guitar amplifiers go up to 11?

Pete Townshend – a reasonably well-known guitarist from a reasonably well-known band called The Who – attributes his own hearing damage to time spent in studio headphones rather than being caused by live performances as a member of one of the loudest rock bands of its time.

Unlike musicians, however, governments and scientists around the world do take this type of thing quite seriously. The risks associated with our ears being subjected to loud and continuous levels of noise are well established and businesses are stringently regulated to ensure a safe environment for workers.

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for example, requires that workers exposed to noise measuring an average of 90 dB over a period of eight hours must be protected from potential hearing damage. And music, like the rattle of continuous drilling on a construction site, is just another noise in the eyes of the law.

But what about us at home in our bedroom studios, headphones ablaze? We’re often a lot less aware and far more lax than perhaps is in the best interests of our own health.

In this post, I hope to be able to shed some light on the subject of hearing damage associated with loud volume levels and compile a short list of things that we can do to mitigate the risks for ourselves.

What’s that you said, “loud”?

Noise level is measured in the decibel (dB) scale and is logarithmic. Meaning, 40 decibels is 100 times as intense as 20 decibels.

To give you an idea of what some various levels of noise might sound like:

20 dB: Rustling leaves

40 dB: Quiet library

60 dB: Normal conversation

90 dB: Subway train or power tools

120 dB: Rock concert

140 dB: Jet engine

180 dB: Rocket launch

According to the Stony Brook School of Medicine, if you have to speak in a loud voice to be understood, background noise is probably in excess of 90 dB. While sounds above 140 dB will usually cause pain.

Hearing specialist David A. Schessel, MD, PhD, speaking of teenagers listening to music in their headphones, says, “if you (the parent) can hear the music playing through their headphones or earphones, it means the sound is too loud and can lead to permanent hearing loss”.

And with that in mind, consider:

At 95 dB, damage will occur after four hours of exposure per day.

At 100 dB, damage will occur after two hours of exposure per day.

At 105 dB, damage will occur after one hour of exposure per day.

At 110 dB, damage will occur after 30 minutes of exposure per day.

At 115 dB, damage will occur after 15 minutes of exposure per day.

At 120 plus dB, damage occurs almost immediately.

Going deaf. What does it sound like?

So what does it sound like to lose your hearing? Noise-induced hearing loss is not instant. Instead, your hearing will deteriorate over time.

This audio demonstration by the UK Health and Safety Executive attempts to give some insight on what you may have to look forward to if you don’t take action to protect your hearing now. As a musician, I have to admit, it’s kinda disturbing.


Using earplugs

For musicians, regular earplugs tend to be more of a problem than a solution. Many musicians will just reject the idea of using earplugs as they have a tendency to make the wearer’s voice sound hollow or make it hard to hear speech and music clearly.

The consequences being that we put our hearing at risk by either wearing earplugs loosely, or wearing no protection at all.

On the other hand, custom earplugs may be just the thing. Custom fit flat-response earplugs are made by taking an impression of the wearer’s ear canal. A lab then makes an earmold that is comfortable and filters sound better than regular disposable earplugs.

According to the H.E.A.R website, “The [Etymotic Research] ER-15 and ER-25 models are popular with musicians because of a special filter that lets the listener hear music at a safe level without sacrificing quality. Instead of cutting out the high frequencies, musician’s plugs attenuate all the frequencies evenly in relation to your hearing.”


Here are a couple of suggestions. Do this if you want to keep on rockin’ into your golden years:

  1. Turn down the volume! Yes, mix at lower volumes and take regular breaks
  2. Touching 80+ dB? SoundAdvice.info advises that musicians should use hearing protection if their exposure is 80 dB or above
  3. Don’t know how loud it is? Sound level meters are readily available in hardware formats as well as app downloads for your iPhone or Android
  4. Can’t help but be exposed to dangerous noise levels? Give your ears a rest for at least 24 hours after the event
  5. Seeing a health professional and getting your ears checked out at least once a year is also well advised

Be safe!

A musicians hearing is one of our most valuable senses and something that we should not take for granted. Take care of your ears people!

Got any tips or thoughts on the subject, leave a comment below. Thanks for reading.

[ Photo: Hear speak see no evil Toshogu ]

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