Noise & Music

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Noise & Music Fact Sheet

Warning: Whether it's Bach or Rock, Your Hearing Could be at Risk
Music is a central part of our lives. But, if played too loud, it can cause permanent and irreversible damage to our hearing. Whether the music is at a rock concert, from a classical orchestra, a school band, your personal stereo system with headphones, your home stereo or car stereo, or if you are a sound engineer, if the music is played too loud for too long, hearing damage is inevitable.

Music-Induced Hearing Loss: How Loud is Too Loud? Continued exposure to noise above 85 decibels (about the level of city traffic), over time will cause damage to hearing. Exposure to loud music is somewhat different from industrial noise, however, due to the "intermittent" nature of the music - that is, music is filled with both quiet and intense passages. This intermittent nature of music offers some protection for the musician's ear. However, personal stereos with headphones have been measured up to 112 dBA, rock concerts between 110 - 120 dBA, music levels of certain orchestral instruments in excess of 126 dBA at the ear, and new car stereos blasting at levels above 140 dBA. Studies show that 37% of rock musicians and 52% of classical musicians have a measurable hearing loss (Chasin, M., 1998). A study by Judy Montgomery (1990) found that 26% of high school seniors who played in the band had a measurable hearing loss as compared to 13% of high school seniors who did not play in a band.

If you notice any of the following warning signs, the music may be too loud and pose a risk to your hearing:

  • A ringing or buzzing in your ear (tinnitus) immediately after exposure to music.
  • A slight muffling of sounds after exposure making it difficult to understand people when you leave the area with loud music.
  • Difficulty understanding speech; that is, you can hear all the words, but you can't understand all of them.
  • If people who are only three feet away have to shout to be heard while you are listening to music, then it is too loud.

Take Note: Your Instrument May Produce Sounds that are More than Music to your Ears Music-induced hearing loss cannot only affect the enjoyment of music but may also threaten a musician's career. In addition to a loss of hearing, other damage may include tinnitus and difficulty in pitch perception. Certain musical instruments carry specific risk: the left ear is typically worse for violists, violinists and drummers while the right ear is typically worse for flute and piccolo players. In an orchestra, school band or rock group, hearing loss may also be associated with the location of another musician's instrument in relation to your ear (i.e., a trumpet or trombone player may be seated next to you and cause risk to your hearing).

Avoiding "The Sounds of Silence": How to Protect Your Hearing Music-induced hearing loss is preventable. In any musical performing group, environmental changes can reduce the risk. Trumpet players should be placed on risers to send the damaging energy above other musicians' heads. Moving the band further back on the stage will allow the band to play at lower levels because some of the sound will be reflected by the audience. Moving all stringed instrument players out from underhangs will allow for less intense playing due to the high frequency absorption of the roof. Finally, elevating the speakers will allow sound engineers to set the volume at lower levels.

Consider these other steps to avoid a lifetime of permanent hearing loss:

  1. Whenever possible, turn down the volume.
  2. Limit exposure time to loud music.
  3. Wear adequate hearing protection. The ER-15 or the ER-25 earplug (designed by Etymotic Research) is recommended. These musician plugs are used with a custom-made ear plug and if used properly, provide 15 or 25 decibels of hearing protection that is equal across all frequencies.This will allow you to hear the richness of the music at lower volumes.

Resources for the Music Lover: H.E.A.R. - Hearing Education and Awareness For Rockers www.hearnet.com

Chasin, Marshall, Musicians and the Prevention of Hearing Loss, Singular Publishing Group, Inc., San Diego, 1997

Click here to check out Noise Center's Personal Stereo Systems and Hearing Fact Sheet.