When Rod Stewart sang those famous lines:
“Can you hear me, can you hear me through the dark night far away?” he may well have been referring to a common problem for musicians: deafness. The recent news that AC/DC singer Brian Johnson cancelled a tour because he was at risk of complete deafness thanks to years of exposure to loud music is hardly surprising.
Hearing loss among musicians isn’t a new phenomenon; remember the famous example of the great classical composer Beethoven who was deaf by the age of thirty.
It really is a sad irony that the very sounds that make music so attractive can cause permanent hearing loss. And it isn’t only members of professional rock bands who are at risk.
What are the risks?
Research spanning the last five decades has pointed out the dangers of hearing loss among professional musicians. The effects of prolonged exposure to loud music are little different to the noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) experienced in industrial situations. Prolonged exposure to noise above 80dBA damages the delicate hair cells responsible for aural signal transference and this damage is permanent.
Classical musicians regularly encounter noise levels of 100-100dBA particularly in front of the brass sections, percussion, and the piccolo. Even the average intensity of noise in an orchestra may well exceed 85dBA and such levels pose a serious risk for hearing loss over time.
These impacts are intensified by the fact that rehearsals and recordings frequently take place in smaller studios as opposed to large concert halls where the sound has more room to dissipate.
Of course, the type of music being played makes a big difference; Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony or a symphony by Mahler imposes much greater sound levels than a Mozart or Haydn symphony.
Rock musicians may inhabit a different soundscape to their classical counterparts but the hearing loss results are the same. Artificial amplification and giant speaker stacks push out sound volumes of up to and beyond 100dBA.
Studies indicate that professional musicians suffer hearing loss at nearly four times the rate of non-musicians and almost twice the incidence of tinnitus–a harsh penalty for doing something you love.
Studio engineers and people employed in music venues may also be at risk thanks to sustained exposure to elevated music volumes.
However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the risks of hearing loss are very real for the average music lover as well. Loud rock bands and the growing trend of listening to music through earpieces is a potent and dangerous mix for your hearing safety.
What can I do to protect my hearing?
Noise is an inescapable occupational hazard for a musician but there are some things you can do to protect yourself.
- Increase the space between you and the source of noise, as the decrease in volume in relation to distance is exponential. This may be as simple as sitting further away from the brass section or staying out of the direct line of speakers and feedback monitors.
- Reduce your exposure to noise. There are ways to lower the volume on your instrument when you are practicing. For example, using practice mutes for string players or practice pads for drummers or simply playing quietly when rehearsing. This can actually be a highly beneficial practice technique in its own right as it can foster sensitivity, accuracy and refine motor skills. It is also important to alternate rehearsing loud sections with quieter sections to give your ears a break.
- Use earplugs to block harmful noise from entering the ears. The range of earplugs available is enormous and you tend to get what you pay for both in terms of comfort and performance. The specialist custom fitted musician earplugs are very expensive but are highly effective in protecting your most important instrument—your hearing. It may take a little time to get used to the reduced aural sensation but even this drawback can be turned to good advantage, as it can foster a more visceral feel for your instrument or voice.
- Give your ears a break and reduce your time listening to music through earpieces.
- In-ear monitors are replacing stage speakers. They enable the musician to hear the performance accurately and control the volume reaching their ears. However, they do tend to make you feel like you’re singing or playing in a bubble.
- Many professional orchestras use Perspex screens to deflect or redirect the sound away from musicians. These can be effective but proper placement is critical and they can cause problems with blocking sightlines to the conductor and redirecting sound to other musicians.
Take care of your ears
If you are a professional musician your employers, orchestra managers or venue administrators are responsible for maintaining a safe workplace. You need to bring these issues to their attention.
Bob Marley once said, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain”. Unfortunately, the sounds you love so much may be doing more harm than you immediately realize. Whether you are a professional musician, DJ, studio engineer, an amateur musician or simply a lover of music, it is up to you to look after your hearing.
Come and visit us at House of Hearing Clinic — we can advise you on all aspects of hearing protection for musicians.