Musicians and hearing loss

Of all people, musicians are perhaps the most deeply effected by sound. The potential for new sounds to be combined in interesting ways pushes a musician to discovery. The gift of hearing is what makes this possible. For many, a life creating, performing, and enjoying music has had negative effects on this gift. On this page we will discuss how we hear, as well as, the variables that can damage our hearing.

Let’s discuss some basic anatomy and physiology. Ready?! Sound waves (acoustic energy) are picked up by the outer ear and then funneled down the ear canal to vibrate the ear drum which is connected to the three middle ear bones (mechanical energy) which in turn push on the fluid filled inner ear cochlea (hydraulic energy) exciting thousands of tiny hair cells which send electrical impulses along the auditory nerve to the brain (electro-chemical energy) where it is decoded and interpreted. Whew!!!

Now, a “breakdown” somewhere along this system can have significant effects on your hearing.

Conductive hearing loss results from a condition in the outer or middle ear. Common causes of conductive hearing loss are impacted earwax, hole in the eardrum, middle ear infection with fluid, and damaged/defective middle ear bones. The loudness of sound is mostly effected and medical treatment is usually successful in treating this type of hearing loss.

Sensorineural hearing loss results from a condition of the inner ear. The tiny hair cell nerve endings are not able to fire their electrical impulses correctly. This is the most common type of hearing loss. The main reason for this is the natural aging process but exposure to loud noise can cause it too. Medical treatment is limited. Sensorineural hearing loss is usually permanent and progressively gets worse. Loudness is effected but it’s the difficulty understanding speech, especially in noise, that most people complain of. Fortunately, advanced hearing technology is available that can effectively treat sensorineural hearing loss.

Since sensorineural hearing loss is the most common hearing loss we should address it. Unfortunately we can’t stop aging but we can do something about loud noise exposure. But first, how much noise is too much? Two factors involved are; the level of noise and the length of exposure time. It is generally believed that exposure to 85dB noise for forty hours a week will begin to cause permanent hearing loss. Every 3dB of increased volume (intensity) cuts the safe exposure time in half. For example, 3 dB increase would be 88 dB so safe exposure is cut to 20 hours a week. Note that an increase in about 10dB (to 94dB) of intensity cuts safe exposure time to just 5 hours in a week. For many musicians, exposure to these levels and higher are the norm. With rehearsal, performance and other exposure opportunities filling out the week - musicians are getting more than their fair share of noise exposure.

If adding 3dB decreases the safe listening time by half then cutting 3dB has the effect of extending safe listening times. The value of musician earplugs becomes clear when you consider that a non-custom model such as the ER20 High Fidelity Hearing Attenuator provides 20dB of attenuation.

In addition to saving delicate hearing hair cells, the ER20 earplugs provide a fairly flat broadband response leaving the fidelity of the music intact. The old foam plugs are strictly for industrial noise as they treat the high frequencies too severely for music enjoyment.

Another way to combat noise is to gain greater control over the sound at it’s source and to provide improved monitoring. Rather than using stage amplifiers to fill the house and large wedge monitors to hear on stage many musicians are using smaller gear on stage and personal in-ear-monitors for an equal mix regardless of stage position. In-ear-monitors allow for personal mixes, consistent/controlled volume level, hearing protection from stage volume. Earphone models such as Westone’s UM-1 and UM-2 are universal fit and do not require ear impressions.

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