Sound is an essential part of our lives, but like most things, its influence on us depends upon both the quality and quantity of the sounds we hear. For example, for most of us, listening to music we enjoy is calming and relaxing, but turn the volume of that music up too loud – for example at a concert or when using earbuds on maximum volume – and the exact same music becomes unpleasant and capable of inducing stress.
While the quality of the sounds we hear is subjective, and depends on individual tastes, the quantity (as measured by loudness ,in decibels) is quite objective. We know that when we have been exposed to loud music or sounds above a certain decibel level for extended periods of time, those sounds can harm the miniature hair cells in our ears that allow us to hear, and cause noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). As a result of coming in contact with these loud sounds, an estimated one in five Americans have developed some degree of tinnitus (continuously hearing a buzzing or ringing sound in the ears). Even quiet sounds below 10 decibels (half the volume of a whisper) may cause stress and anxiety if you’re subjected to them long enough; have you ever been kept awake at night by the sound of a dripping faucet or ticking clock?
On the flip side, sound can be used to reduce anxiety and stress and even treat some types of hearing loss. Chanting, birds singing, waves breaking or falling water are sounds that nearly all people find soothing and peaceful. Increasingly, these sorts of sounds are being used by psychologists to treat anxiety rather than create it, and by audiologists to treat hearing problems such as tinnitus rather than cause them. Music therapy is reaching the mainstream in clinics and hospitals to improve healing after surgery, in stroke rehabilitation, and to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s. White noise generators, which purposefully produce a mixture of frequencies to cover up other sounds, are helping insomniacs get a better night sleep and office workers disregard irritating background noise.
In the field of audiology, music therapy and sound therapy are exhibiting promising results as a tinnitus treatment option. While the music does not make the tinnitus go away, the specialist is able to work with the patient to psychologically mask the ringing or buzzing sounds. By using specialized tones or carefully selected music tracks, audiologists have been able to teach tinnitus patients to retrain their brains to prefer the sounds they want to hear over the buzzing sounds produced by the tinnitus. This therapy doesn’t actually make the buzzing sounds go away, but it does allow people to no longer feel stress and anxiety from hearing these sounds, and to focus their attention on the sounds they want to hear.
If you have experienced tinnitus, or any other form of hearing loss, and are curious about what music therapy or other tinnitus treatments might be able to do for you, contact us.