How Musicians can Protect their Ears and Hearing

What do Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Barbra Streisand, and Pete Townshend have in common, besides all being musicians? They all suffered permanent hearing loss, directly as a result of playing their music.

I often work with musicians who have experienced hearing damage as a result of their longtime love of playing music. Exposure to loud music causes noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), which can produce a temporary ringing in the ears (tinnitus); if you continue to expose yourself to the loud music, the condition can become permanent.

Not just big-name stadium rock stars are susceptible, all musicians are at risk. Players of all genres from classical, to club and small venues, even while rehearsing at home a musician can cross the threshold to overexposure resulting in NIHL. You can experience hearing loss when exposed for a prolonged period of time to any sound over 85 decibels (dB). While 85dB may sound like a high level of sound, even rehearsal situations can produce these levels. Rock musicians and classical alike are both exposed to excessive amplitude of sound; an unamplified violin reaches 103dB and an electric guitar produces 120dB. It has been estimated that musicians do more damage to their ears during the hours that they rehearse alone than they do in the short times they spend on stage.

By investing in a pair of earplugs – high-quality musicians earplugs, not the cheap foam earplugs you find in pharmacies – you can take steps to protect your hearing. The first musicians earphones were invented by Etymotic Research, and other manufacturers still use their design to create specialized ear protection for musicians. What makes them better than the cheap foam earplugs is that they allow you to hear music and speech accurately, at all frequencies, just at lowered volumes.

Universal-fit musicians earplugs, starting at about $15 a pair, can be found at most stores that sell musical instruments. But for the musicians I see – whether they play professionally or just for fun – I recommend custom-molded musicians earplugs with Etymotic filters, because of the greater protection they provide. The custom molded ear plugs will be more comfortable, will block more undesirable sounds while allowing you to hear the full range of music, and will be easier to maintain. They are also more expensive than the universal-fit earplugs, but when you consider that hearing damage is irreversible, the investment is more than worth it.

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