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Let me begin with a painful confession: I abused my ears in my youth. I played keyboards in a rock band that performed on crowded stages with stacks of Marshall guitar amps screaming behind me and stage monitors blasting me from the front. The fact that my acupuncturist could take away the persistent ringing in my ears gave me false confidence that my hearing loss and tinnitus were temporary and curable. When I outgrew the touring life I began scoring films (along with teaching piano) and had to compose late at night using headphones so as not to wake my family and neighbors. But another confession: I like it loud. Listening to my mock orchestral scores in headphones at high volume was a euphoric pleasure I indulged in far too often. After scoring my second movie I took my ringing ears to my acupuncturist and was horrified to discover that his treatments no longer worked. I launched into desperate experimentation with Chinese herbs, nutritional supplements, body work and foods that were rumored to improve auditory function. But nothing cured the ringing or hearing loss. I would lose big chunks of conversation if I was not staring at the speaker’s lips. There was nothing else for me to do but invest in a good pair of hearing aids; hearing aids are extremely helpful, but not a fix by any means. Listening to music will never be the same, and I still have a lot of trouble understanding women’s and children’s words.
More than ever, hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is a huge problem in America for musicians and non musicians alike. According to the National Institute On Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) one in eight Americans 12 years and older have hearing loss in both ears. The New York Times reports that though hearing problems can be age-related or due to genetic factors, medications, ear wax and illnesses, most hearing problems are noise-induced. Noise-induced hearing loss can result from one loud noise such as a gun shot or explosion near your ear. Or it can be from prolonged exposure to noise such as street traffic, subway trains, sirens, jets, motorcycles, or unfortunately, loud music.
We love listening to loud music with ear buds or headphones, but music above 85 decibels can cause damage in just 15 minutes according to Dr. Michael D. Seidman, author of the book, Save Your Hearing Now. I tell my students to set a comfortable volume for headphones, ear buds, or speakers, then turn it a few notches down. Always listen at levels softer than you would like. And give your ears a rest after 30 minutes of listening, even at lower levels.
If you listen to music with headphones on flights, at the gym, or while walking in the city, it would be worth your while to invest in a pair of good noise-canceling headphones such as the Bose Quiet Comfort series (I have the QC15 over-the-ear). Noise-canceling headphones reduce background noise so that you can listen to your music at lower volumes. If you are listening with noise canceling headphones on quiet streets or hikes but find that you can’t hear your music when you move to a busy street, instead of turning up the volume, pause the music until you’re in a quieter place again.
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I hate to say it, but concerts can be hazardous to your hearing health! Hear Forever reports that symphonic concerts can range upwards from 90 decibels advising that musicians should wear ear plugs while performing. And listeners should wear ear plugs, too, especially if they are sitting near the brass section, or in front of speakers. I never leave home without ear plugs. Rock concerts in stadiums or small clubs are even louder.
Responsible musicians wear ear plugs while they play, and so should their fans. Yes, ear plugs muffle the sound, but they protect your ears, so get over it and wear them! And make sure your kids wear them too! Ask yourself if listening to loud music is really worth a lifetime of ringing in your ears, and having to say, “WHAT?” whenever anyone speaks to you. Not being able to be part of a conversation makes you feel isolated and embarrassed. Believe me, I know.
You can buy inexpensive but effective ear plugs at any drug store, or google “custom molded ear plugs” or “musicians ear plugs” if you want to try something more comfortable or less muting than the over-the-counter offerings.
Here are some other decibel levels provided by the Hearing Health Foundation:
- Firecracker/gun shot 140-160 dB
- Jet take-off 140 dB
- Ambulance siren, thunderclap 120dB
- Jack hammer, concerts 110 dB
- MP3 players at maximum volume 105dB
- Subway platform 95dB
- Heavy traffic, school cafeteria 85dB
- Dishwasher 75dB
- Vacuum, hair dryer 70dB (but many blow dryers are louder than that!)
- Normal conversation 60dB
- Whisper 30dB
More suggestions for avoiding noise-induced hearing loss:
- Don’t be embarrassed about putting your hands over your ears as a subway train or siren passes you by.
- Remember to turn on your device before putting on your headphones, in case the music is too loud.
- If you use a blow dryer frequently or for more than a few minutes, wear ear plugs.
- Wear ear plugs when in an elementary school cafeteria or auditorium.
- Wear ear plugs when operating loud equipment such as lawn mowers, blowers, chain saws, and even vacuum cleaners.
- Keep ear plugs with you at all times.
It’s too late for me- I can’t undue the damage I did to my ears in my ignorance. But I hope that my post will encourage you take action to protect your own ears. Hearing aids are EXPENSIVE (they cost thousands); they make speech sound tinny (even the best ones), and music sound out-of-tune (even with good music settings); though they are extremely helpful, I wouldn’t suggest thinking of hearing aids as a back-up plan when deciding whether or not to wear ear plugs in a loud situation.
Protecting your hearing is a vital part of living a healthy, happy life.
To read a scientific study about listening to loud music, click here.
I welcome your comments! With love and music, Gaili Schoen
Author, Upper Hands Piano: A Method for Adults 50+ to SPARK the Mind, Heart, and Soul