Popularity, wealth, and screaming fans — these are a few of the terms and phrases you’d include to describe the lifestyle of a professional musician. In spite of this, what you probably wouldn’t consider is “hearing loss” or “tinnitus,” the not-so-pleasant side-effects of all that fame, wealth, and screaming. The sad paradox is, a musician’s hearing is exactly what is most at risk to harm from the performance of their craft.
The fact is, musicians are roughly four times more likely to suffer from noise-induced hearing loss compared with the average person, as reported by scientists at the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology. The study also discovered that professional musicians are nearly 57% more likely to develop tinnitus — a condition connected with a chronic ringing in the ears.
The reason: repeated exposure to high decibel sound. In the long run, loud sound will irreparably damage the hair cells of the inner ear, which are the sensory receptors responsible for sending sound to the brain. Like an ample patch of grass worn out from repeated trampling, the hair cells can also be destroyed from repeated overexposure to loud noise – the distinction, of course, being that you can’t plant new hair cells.
Louder is not better
To demonstrate the issue, hearing loss begins with repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels (decibels being a unit used to calculate loudness). That might not mean very much to you, until you reflect on the decibel levels connected with common events:
Whisper at 6 feet: 30 decibels (dB)
Standard conversation at 3 feet: 60 – 65 (dB)
Motorcycle: 100 dB
Front row at a rock show: 120 to 150 dB
In non-technical terms, rock shows are literally ear-splittingly loud, and frequent unguarded exposure can cause some considerable damage, which, regrettably, many popular musicians have recently attested to.
Chris Martin, the lead vocalist for the band Coldplay, has dealt with with Tinnitus for a decade. According to Martin:
“Looking after your ears is unfortunately something you don’t think about until there’s a problem. I’ve had tinnitus for about 10 years, and since I started protecting my ears it hasn’t got any worse (touch wood). But I wish I’d thought about it earlier. Now we always use moulded filter plugs, or in-ear monitors, to try and protect our ears. You CAN use industrial headphones, but that looks strange at a party.”
Other noteworthy musicians that suffer from hearing loss or tinnitus include Neil Young, Ozzy Osbourne, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Bono, Sting, Ryan Adams, and more, many of which express regret that they hadn’t done more to preserve their ears all through their careers. Lars Ulrich from Metallica stated::
“If you get a scratch on your nose, in a week that’ll be gone. When you scratch your hearing or damage your hearing, it doesn’t come back. I try to point out to younger kids … once your hearing is gone, it’s gone, and there’s no real remedy.”
How musicians, and fans, can protect their ears
Although musicians are at a higher risk for acquiring hearing loss or tinnitus, the risk can be significantly decreased by using protective measures. Due to the specialized needs of musicians — and the significance of conserving the detConsidering the unique needs of musicians — and the importance of preserving the fine details of sound — the initial step is to schedule an appointment with an hearing specialist.
Here’s a common error: musicians will often wait to see an audiologist until they experience one or more of these symptoms:
A ringing or buzzing sound in the ears
Any pain or discomfort in the ears
Difficulty comprehending speech
Trouble following conversations in the presence of background noise
The trouble is, when these symptoms are present, the damage has already been done. So, the main thing a musician can do to deter long-term, permanent hearing loss is to schedule an appointment with an audiologist before symptoms are present.
If you’re a musician, an hearing specialist can prescribe custom made musicians’ plugs or in-ear-monitors that will give protection to your hearing without limiting your musical abilities. As a musician, you have distinctive needs for hearing and hearing protection, and audiologists or hearing specialists are the experts specifically trained to render this customized protection.
Additionally, remember that it’s not only musicians at risk: concert-goers are just as vulnerable. So the next time you’re front row at a rock show, remember that 120 decibels of hair-cell-killing volume is pumping right from the speakers right into your ears.