Listen Up: Hearing Protection For Musicians

Listen Up: Hearing Protection For Musicians

Do your ears a favour, and read up on how to keep them safe.

Listen Up: Hearing Protection For Musicians

Do your ears a favour, and read up on how to keep them safe.

As a musician, your hearing is one of the tools of your trade.  Just as it’s important to care for your musical instrument or your voice, it’s equally important to look after your hearing by taking steps to minimise the risk of noise-induced hearing loss.  

Will noise injury cause complete deafness?

Noise injury won’t make you completely deaf, but because it affects hearing for high-frequency sounds (about 4 octaves above middle C), people with a noise-induced hearing loss often mishear soft consonants so they confuse similar-sounding words and start to have more difficulty listening in noisy situations. Music may not sound as rich as it does to someone with normal hearing because it is more difficult to hear all the harmonics. Sounds become more muffled.

I don’t play rock & roll, am I at risk for excessive noise exposure?

While the general public may associate hearing damage with rock and roll bands and teenagers using MP3 players, professional musicians of most genres can be exposed to significant sound levels during rehearsal and performance, and music teachers may also experience levels of exposure that potentially puts their hearing at risk.

How can I tell if my environment is too noisy?

If you have ever played in a loud concert or been to a noisy event and felt as though your ears were full of cotton wool afterwards, then you are likely to have experienced a temporary hearing loss caused by noise exposure. While your hearing may recover after a few hours or a day, if you repeat this experience on a regular basis, eventually your hearing will not return to normal levels. If you experience tinnitus (ringing in the ears) after a noisy event, this is also a warning that noise levels are too high.

As a rule of thumb, if you can’t hear someone a metre away when they talk to you in a normal voice, then the background noise is too high.

The risk of noise injury is related to both the level of noise exposure and length of time and how often you are exposed to it.  The louder a noise is the shorter the time you can be exposed to it before your hearing is at risk. 

So, how can I protect my hearing?

Try to limit excessive noise exposure during rehearsal and performance. Talk to your colleagues, conductor or band director about the preferred options.  For instance,

  • Orchestral screens or shields can be used to reduce sound transmission and reflection
  • Use a sound level meter app to help you monitor noise levels. Try this article as a starting point
  • Take breaks to give your ears a rest.

Music teachers can reduce their risk in their teaching environment by minimising hard, reflective surfaces in the teaching environment. For example, thick curtains, carpets, drapes over whiteboards, metal cabinets and concrete walls and even home-made 3D relief art can absorb unwanted sound. Having quiet breaks between classes and reducing class sizes also helps.

Use specialist earplugs to protect your ears. While the typical earplugs you can buy in pharmacies reduce the overall noise level, they also change the balance of sound heard by the listener. This may be alright if you want to protect your ears while mowing the lawn or trying to sleep on an aeroplane, but this is not suitable for professionals who must be tuned to the finest nuances in their music. An audiologist can make you customised earplugs that contain special acoustic filters to reduce the noise level without affecting the sound quality. The filters come in several different strengths, depending upon the type of instrument played - for example, a drummer would use a stronger acoustic filter than someone who plays in a chamber orchestra. It can take a while to get used to the sensation of using earplugs, but it is worth persevering. The good news is that hearing scientists are aware of the challenges that musicians face when using earplugs and protecting their hearing and are continuously studying ways to improve them.

Limit your exposure to loud sounds in the non-musical part of your life. Noise exposure has a cumulative effect on your hearing, just as eating chocolate biscuits has a cumulative effect on your weight - one biscuit may be OK, six packets of biscuits could be bad news! Reducing noise exposure outside your professional environment reduces your overall noise dose.

Keep your personal stereo volume at moderate levels - use the “conversation at one metre” rule of thumb to check if your MP3 player is too loud.  If you’re turning up the volume so that you can hear your favourite music over the noise of the train or traffic, consider using noise-cancelling headphones. Use hearing protection when you do noisy activities like mowing the lawn, taking a spin class or using power tools. Use your earplugs if you go to dance clubs or live music venues. If you aren’t wearing earplugs, take time away from the music periodically.  Some venues have chill-out rooms for this purpose.

Where can I go for more information?

The Know Your Noise website, developed by the National Acoustic Laboratories and the HEARing Co-operative Research Centre has a wealth of information ranging from recommended sound measurement apps to advice for musicians and simulations of how hearing loss affects the quality of music.  You can also do a free on-line hearing test.

If you’d like to get more personal advice from an audiologist, you can chat online or in person at Hearing Help. There is no cost or obligation for this service.

Australian Hearing has a wealth of information about hearing and hearing loss.

Alison King
Principal Audiologist, Australian Hearing