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Protecting Musicians’ Hearing


Submitted by Midwest Hearing Center

The musician presents an all too common “catch-22” in hearing health care. Whether someone is a rock star, marching band member, music instructor, or sound engineer, his/her hearing acuity is essential but is also threatened by the loud environment he/she frequently experiences. Anyone who is around loud sound for a significant amount of time (shorter time for louder sounds) will eventually have hearing loss. Thus, nearly all musicians will eventually have some degree of noise-induced hearing loss.

To get technical: there are tiny hair cells in the cochlea (organ of hearing) that move and wave in response to sound. When a loud sound is heard, these hairs get violently shaken and sometimes damage occurs. This is the reason why a ringing sound is heard after being in a loud environment. In most instances the hair cells recover, the ringing stops, and normal hearing is regained. However, over time and frequent exposure to loud sound, the hair cells eventually sustain irreversible damage and die. It is also possible for these hair cells to die with one exposure to an extremely loud sound, such as an explosion. The more hair cells that die, the more hearing loss that results.

One paradox facing musicians is that they depend on their hearing acuity for their profession, yet as a result of this profession (and noise exposure) they acquire hearing loss. Furthermore, since they utilize a larger pitch range than the average person, musicians are highly perceptive of even the slightest hearing loss. Familiar sounds might be perceived as strange or altered in some way. The clarity and richness of both speech and music may be degraded. This lack of clarity and altered pitch perception is frequently a result of noise-induced hearing loss.

Another conundrum is that musicians need to hear in loud environments in order to play/conduct/advise well; therefore, using hearing protection is seen as unacceptable. Many musicians feel as though the most readily available hearing protection (often foam earplugs) alter sound too much and reduce everything to an undesirable degree. However, in response to this dilemma, there are now many different products available that give musicians both protection and unaltered pitch perception.

A simple “Google search” will reveal that there are many more options for earplugs than the standard foam plugs. For example, custom earplugs can be made for a person’s ears by an audiologist. Hearing protection for musicians usually incorporates filters to block out some sound while letting some through unaltered. Utilizing filters is a way musicians can hear without being harmed. Depending on specific needs, there are a variety of filters that can be utilized and switched out if needed. In addition, custom molds will last longer than stock and are ensured to fit securely. Therefore, custom pieces with filters are often preferred as they allow a specified amount of sound through unaltered while keeping harmful sounds out.

For performance musicians who need to wear an ear-level monitor for sound quality, there is even a line of custom in-the-ear monitors that protect hearing while allowing different frequencies through depending on the instrument one plays. These monitors vary in cost depending on the sophistication of circuitry. The more speakers/drivers in a monitor, the more sound detail the musician can hear. The manufacturer that Midwest Hearing Center uses to make these monitors is Westone. Information about specific devices is available on their website.

Some audiologists specialize in hearing protection products; however, any audiologist will be able to aim someone in the right direction and give advice. You must see a hearing health care professional to obtain custom-made products. Under no circumstances should someone make an impression of his/her own ear or the ear of a loved one, as this could cause serious damage to the ear.

While it seems contrary for musicians to wear hearing protection since they need to hear music the most, it is vital that they do so. There are many options other than the standard foam earplugs that will provide better and safer sound quality. It is never too early to start thinking about protecting your hearing.

For more information about any of these options, please contact Midwest Hearing Center at 309-691-6616 or 309-284-0164.
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