What do Phil Collins, Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton, and Ludwig van Beethoven have in common, besides all being musicians? As a result of years of performing, they all have permanent hearing loss. When musicians come to me for treatment, I feel obliged to inform them of a lamentable fact of life – playing music may damage their hearing. 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.
The hearing loss can happen to any musician, whether they play in a rock band, in a symphony orchestra, in a chamber music group, or just play at home when rehearsing. Any sound with an amplitude (volume) of over 85 decibels (dB) can cause hearing loss if you are exposed to it for long periods of time. An electric guitar played onstage generates 120dB, but a violin can produce 103dB, and thus cause almost as much hearing loss. In fact, audiologists researching hearing loss in musicians have found that overexposure to sound while rehearsing adds up to more hours than they spend on stage performing.
Musicians can take steps to protect their hearing despite this unavoidable exposure to sound that exceeds acceptable levels, even in seemingly quiet rehearsal settings. When investing in high-quality ear protection beyond what can be had from drug-store Styrofoam ear plugs, performers can trust their hearing is protected. The first musicians earphones were invented by Etymotic Research, and other manufacturers still use their design to create specialized ear protection for musicians. Unlike the cheap Styrofoam earplugs that simply block sound, musician ear protection customized for you by your audiologist allows you to hear your normal full range of sound, just at a reduced volume ensuring your hearing is protected. Stores that sell musical instruments and supplies carry what are called universal-fit earplugs for about $15 per pair. For musicians that want to protect their hearing and hear the full range of their music, I recommend custom-molded earplugs with Etymotic filters. Comfortable even with extended wear for long periods of time, custom-molded earplugs block undesirable sound allowing the music to come through undistorted and without damaging hearing. Yes, they’re more expensive than the earplugs sold in music stores, but since hearing damage is irreversible, how much is your ability to hear the music you play worth to you?