Protecting Your Hearing as a Musician

Orchestra pit, "The Merry Widow"

Information and Recommendations for Student Musicians from the National Association of Schools of Music Performing Arts Medicine Association 

Disclaimer: The following information is generic and advisory in nature. It is not a substitute for professional, medical judgments. It should not be used as a basis for medical treatment. If you are concerned about your hearing or think you may have suffered hearing loss, consult a licensed medical professional.

Introduction


In working toward a degree in music, you are joining a profession with a long and honored history. Part of the role of any professional is to remain in the best condition to practice the profession. For all of you, as aspiring musicians, this involves safeguarding your hearing health. 

Whatever your plans after graduation – whether they involve playing, teaching, engineering, or simply enjoying music – you owe it to yourself and your fellow musicians to do all you can to protect your hearing. As you may know, certain behaviors and your exposure to certain sounds can, over time, damage your hearing. You may be young now, but you’re never too young for the onset of hearing loss. In fact, in most cases, noise - related hearing loss doesn’t develop overnight. (Well, some does, but we’ll address that issue later in this document.) But the majority of noise-induced hearing loss happens gradually.

So the next time you find yourself blasting music through those tiny earbuds of your iPod or turning up the volume on your amp, ask yourself, “Am I going to regret this someday?” You never know; you just might. And as a musician, you cannot afford to risk it. The bottom line is this: If you’re serious about pursuing a career in music, you need to protect your hearing. The way you hear music, the way you recognize and differentiate pitch, the way you play music; all are directly connected to your hearing. Do yourself a favor: protect it. I promise you won’t regret it.

Music and Noise


You may be wondering why we’re referring to music —this beautiful form of art and self-expression—as “noise.” Here’s why: What we know about hearing health comes from medical research and practice. 

Both are based in science where “noise” is a general term for sound. Music is simply one kind of sound. Obviously, there are thousands of others. In science-based work, all types of sound, including music, are regularly categorized as different types of noise Terminology aside, it’s important to remember this fundamental point: A sound that it too loud, or too loud for too long, is dangerous to hearing health, no matter what kind of sound it is or whether we call it noise, music, or something else. Music itself is not the issue. Loudness and its duration are the issues. Music plays an important part in hearing health, but hearing health is far larger than music. All of us, as musicians, are responsible for our art. We need to cultivate a positive relationship between music and our hearing health. Balance, as in so many things, is an important part of this relationship.

Noise-Induced Permanent Hearing Loss


The ear is made up of three sections, the outer, middle, and inner ear. Sounds must pass through all three sections before signals are sent to the brain. Here’s the simple explanation of how we experience sound: Sound, in the form of sound waves, enters the outer ear. These waves travel through the bones of the middle ear. When they arrive in the inner ear, they are converted into electrical signals that travel via neural passages to the brain. It is then that you experience “hearing” the sound. Now, when a loud noise enters the ear, it poses a risk to the ear’s inner workings. For instance, a very loud sound, an explosion, for example, or a shotgun going off at close range, can actually dislodge the tiny bones in the middle ear, causing conductive hearing loss, which involves a reduction in the sound level experienced by the listener and a reduction in the listener’s ability to hear faint sounds. In many cases, this damage can be repaired with surgery. But loud noises like this are also likely to send excessive sound levels into the inner ear, where permanent hearing damage occurs. The inner ear, also known as the cochlea, is where most hearing-loss-related ear damage tends to occur. Inside the cochlea are tiny hair cells that are responsible for transmitting sound waves to the brain. When a loud noise enters the inner ear, it can damage the hair cells, thus impairing their ability to send neural impulses to the brain.

The severity of a person’s noise-induced hearing loss depends on the severity of the damage to these hair cells. The extent of the damage to these cells is normally related to the length and frequency of a person’s exposure to loud sounds over long periods of time. Because noise-induced hearing loss is painless, you may not realize that it’s happening at first. Then suddenly one day you will realize that you’re having more and more trouble hearing high frequency sounds –the ones that are the most high-pitched. If you don’t start to take precautions then, your hearing loss may eventually also affect your ability to perceive both speech sounds and music.It is very important to understand that these hair cells in your inner ear cannot regenerate. Any damage done to them is permanent. At this time, there is simply no way to repair or undo the damage.

FACT: According to the American Academy of Audiology, approximately 36 million Americans have hearing loss. One in three developed their hearing loss as a result of exposure to noise.

Noise-Induced Temporary Hearing Loss

 It is also important to note that not all noise-induced hearing loss is necessarily permanent. Sometimes, after continuous, prolonged exposure to a loud noise, we may experience what’s called “noise-induced temporary hearing loss.”

During temporary hearing loss, known as Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS), hearing ability is reduced. Outside noises may sound fuzzy or muted. Normally, this lasts no more than 16 to 18 hours, at which point your hearing levels will return to normal. Often during this Temporary Threshold Shift, people will experience tinnitus, a medical condition characterized by a ringing, buzzing, or roaring in the ears. Tinnitus may last only a few minutes, but it can also span several hours, or, in extreme instances, last indefinitely. Also, if you experience a series of temporary hearing losses, you maybe well on the way to permanent damage sometime in the future.

What All CSUF Musicians Should Do


1. Stay informed. Awareness is the key. Like many health-related issues, prevention is much easier and less expensive than cures. Take time to read available information concerning injuries associated with your art.

2. Musicians might find the following books helpful (copies of these and many other print resources are on display in the Performance Science Centre Lab): 

Conable, Barbara. What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body (GIA Publications,2000) 
Klickstein, Gerald. The Musician's Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness (Oxford, 2009) 
Norris, Richard N. The Musician's Survival Manual (International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, 1993) 

3. Make one appointment each semester in the Performance Science Centre Lab (PSCL) in CPAC 261 to be evaluated for excessive muscular tension buildup as you play, sing, or conduct. Review the results with your applied music instructor. The PSCL has software and peripherals for monitoring with graphs, video recording, and audio recording your technical approach. ProFormaVision uses surface electromyography (sEMG) to take readings of microvolts produced in the primary muscle groups used in performing, backed up with real time video recording from two cameras, and audio recording. VoceVista is designed to give real time spectrum analysis and electroglottograph for singers. The PSCL is manned 6 hours per week (please see the door for drop-in office hours) and additional times can easily be arranged by contacting the Assistant Director or one of the Directors of the lab.

Other links:

Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM)Opens in new window , the world's leading authority on musical assessment, actively supporting and encouraging music learning for all.

Performing Arts Medicine Association (PAMA)Opens in new window , an organization comprised of dedicated medical professionals, artists educators, and administrators with the common goal of improving the health care of the performing artist.

Texas Voice CenterOpens in new window , founded in 1989 for the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of voice disorders.

National Center for Voice and Speech (NCVS)Opens in new window , conducts research, educates vocologists, and disseminates information about voice and speech.

Vocal Health Center, University of Michigan Health SystemOpens in new window , recognized locally, regionally and nationally as a leading institution for the treatment and prevention of voice disorders. At the heart of the Center is a professional team comprised of experts from the University of Michigan Health System and UM School of Music, encompassing the fields of Laryngology, Speech Pathology, and Vocal Arts

Noise Levels and Risk


How do you know when a noise or sound is too loud, when it’s a threat to your hearing health? Most experts agree that prolonged exposure to any noise or sound over 85 decibels (dB)* can cause hearing loss. 

Two important things to remember: 

1. The longer you are exposed to a loud noise, the greater the potential for hearing loss.

2. The closer you are to the source of a loud noise, the greater the risk  that you’ll experience some damage to your hearing mechanisms. At this point, it helps to have some frame of reference.

How loud are certain noises? Consider these common sounds, their corresponding decibel levels, and the recommended maximum exposure times established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

*NIOSH-recommended exposure limits 


You can listen to sounds under 85 dB for as long as you like. There is no risk involved. For sounds in this lower decibel range, listening to them for hours on end does not pose any real risk to your hearing health. 85 dB is the magic number. Sounds above the 85 dB threshold pose a potential threat to your hearing when you exceed the maximum recommended exposure time.

MP3 players at full volume, lawnmowers, and snowblowers: 100 dB.
Maximum exposure time: 15 minutes

Did you know that normally, MP3 players generate about 85 dB at one-third of their maximum volume, 94 dB at half volume, and 100 dB or more at full volume? Translated into daily exposure time, according to NIOSH Sound Intensity (dB). 

Sounds below the 85 dB threshold:

Whisper: 30 dB (safe; no maximum)
Moderate Rainfall: 50 dB (safe; no maximum)
Conversation (average): 60 dB (safe; no maximum)
Freeway Traffic: 70 dB (safe; no maximum)
Alarm Clock: 80 dB (safe; no maximum)

Sounds at or above the 85 dB threshold and recommended exposure times (approximate):

Blender, Blow-dryer: 90 dB; 2 hours
MP3 Player (full volume), Lawnmower: 100 dB; 15 minutes
Rock Concerts, Power Tools: 110 dB; 2 minutes
Jet Plane Take-off: 120 dB; Unsafe, Immediate risk
Sirens, Jackhammers: 130 dB; Unsafe, Immediate risk
Gunshots, Fireworks (close range): 140; Unsafe, Immediate risk

(85 dB equals 8 hours, 94 dB equals 1 hour, and 100 dB equals 15 minutes)

Do yourself and be mindful of your volume. Also, remember to wear earplugs or earmuffs when you mow the lawn or when you use a snowblower. When you’re dealing with sounds that produce between 120 and 140 dB, you’re putting yourself at risk for almost immediate damage. At these levels, it is imperative that you utilize protective ear-coverings. Better yet, if it’s appropriate, avoid your exposure to these sounds altogether.

FACT: More than 30 million Americans expose themselves to hazardous sound levels on a regular basis.

Musicians and Noise-Induced Hearing Loss


More and more is being written about the sound levels of certain musical groups. It’s no secret that many rock concerts expose performers and audiences to dangerously high levels of noise. The ringing in your ears after a blaring rock concert can tell you that. But now professional and college music ensembles are under similar scrutiny. It’s true that musicians are exposed to elevated levels of sound when they rehearse and perform music. But that doesn’t equal automatic risk for hearing loss.

Take for instance a typical practice session on the piano. When taken at close range to the instrument over a limited period of time, a sound level meter fluctuates between a reading of 60 and 70 decibels. That’s similar in intensity to your average conversation (60dB). There will, of course, be moments when the music peaks and this level rises. But these moments are not sustained over several hours. At least not under normal practice conditions.

While the same is true for most instruments, it is important to understand that certain instrumental sections tend to produce higher sound levels. Sometimes these levels relate to the piece of music being performed and to notational requirements (pianissimo, fortissimo); other times, theselevels are what naturally resonate from the instrument. For example, string sections tend to produce decibel levels on the lower end of the spectrum, while brass, percussion, and woodwind sections generally produce decibel levels at the higher end of the spectrum.

What’s important is that you are mindful of the overall volume of your instrument and of those around you. If you’re concerned about volume levels, share your concerns with your instructor.

FACT: Approximately 50% of musicians have experienced some degree of hearing loss.

Mindful Listening

It’s important to think about the impact noise can have on your hearing health when you:

• Attend concerts
• Play your instrument
• Adjust the volume of your car stereo
• Listen to your radio, CD player, and MP3 player.

Here are some simple ways to test if the music is too loud. It’s too loud (and too dangerous) when:

• You have to raise your voice to be heard. 
• You can’t hear someone who’s 3 feet away from you. 
• The speech around you sounds muffled or dull after you leave a noisy area. 
• You experience tinnitus (pain, ringing, buzzing, or roaring in your ears) after you leave a noisy area.

Basic Protection for Musicians


When evaluating your risk for hearing loss, ask yourself the following questions: 

• How frequently am I exposed to noises and sounds above 85 decibels? 
• What can I do to limit my exposure to such loud noises and sounds? 
• What personal behaviors and practices increase my risk of hearing loss?
• How can I be proactive in protecting my hearing and the hearing of those around me?

As musicians, it’s vital that you protect your hearing whenever possible. Here are some simple ways to reduce your risk of hearing loss: 

• When possible, avoid situations that put your hearing health at risk. 
• Refrain from behaviors which could compromise your hearing health and the health of others.
• If you’re planning to be in a noisy environment for any significant amount of time, try to maintain a reasonable distance from the source of the sound or noise. In other words, there’s no harm in enjoying a fireworks display, so long as you’re far away from the launch point.
• When attending loud concerts, be mindful of the location of your seats. Try to avoid sitting or standing too close to the stage or to the speakers, and use earplugs.
• Keep the volume of your music and your listening devices at a safe level. 
• Remember to take breaks during a rehearsal. Your ears will appreciate this quiet time.
• Use earplugs or other protective devices in noisy environments and when using noisy equipment.

We hope this resource information has made you think more carefully about your own hearing health. Just remember that all the knowledge in the world is no match for personal responsibility. We’ve given you the knowledge and the tools; now it’s your turn. You are responsible for your exposure to all sorts of sounds, including music. Your day-to-day decisions have a great impact on your hearing health, both now and years from now.

Do yourself a favor. Be smart. Protect your precious commodity: protect your hearing ability.