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How Musicians Should Look After Their Hearing

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I first heard it around eight years ago. I was at the mixing desk for a live gig, and was concerned about a high pitched ringing sound I could hear. "Can you hear that high pitched sound?" I asked the guy standing next to me. "Yeah", he answered vaguely. So I started trying to isolate which channel the sound was coming from, and eventually started to adjust the EQ of the mix trying to get rid of that sound. I managed to achieve a ridiculously muddy sound, but couldn't get rid of the ringing. As I drove home I laughed out loud. I could still hear the ringing! I discovered then and there that I have tinnitus, also called "ringing in the ears".

This article was previously published on the AudioJungle blog, which is moving on to a new format in 2010. We'll be bringing you an article from the AudioJungle archives each Sunday.

Since then the ringing has become worse, and the wax seems to build up quicker in my ears now, too, making everything sound muffled. When I play live I often try to watch the drummer's high hat stick so that I know I'm playing in time. I don't know what caused the ringing, but I did buy a nice pair of headphones around a year earlier, and used them a lot. I mentioned the tinnitus to the doctor I had at the time, but he didn't think much could be done. My wife - a nurse - has wondered whether anything could help, but hasn't offered much hope. She does become increasingly frustrated, though, every time I say, "What was that?"

This year I'm determined to see what can be done for my hearing. I don't have all the answers, and would love to hear from you if you've had any success. Here are some tips about how musicians should look after their hearing, and a few hints about what you can do after the damage is done.

Musicians Need to be Especially Careful of Hearing Loss

Dating back to Ludwig van Beethoven, musicians and hearing loss seem to go hand in hand. Today, the amplification of music makes musicians even more susceptible.

Musicians need to be aware of this, and take definite action to protect their hearing. In particular, we need to protect our hearing from loud volume. The decibel level of the music doesn't have to be very high to cause damage to our hearing, especially if we are exposed to the music for long periods of time.

Wear Good Quality Earplugs

"Use sound protection for practice and performance." This is the motto of Sensaphonics, who research and manufacture high-quality, protective earphones and earplugs.

They explain the importance of this: "The quality and professionalism of a musicians performance depends on being able to hear yourself individually as well as hearing the complete musical performance. That's why today's musicians prevent hearing loss with protective earphones and plugs. Whether you are performing the vocals or playing a particular instrument, you need to be sure that your contribution to the music is at the right tempo, in the right key, and in the right spirit with the rest of the ensemble. Often, the sound of the other instruments and placement within the group make it difficult for one musician to really hear himself or herself clearly."

It is great to see that many of the younger musicians I play with are aware of protecting their hearing, and wear earplugs designed for musicians, which filter out volumes evenly over the frequencies.

Have Regular Hearing Tests

If you are starting to suffer from noise-induced hearing loss, it is better to find out sooner, when you still have an opportunity to do something about it.

Miriam Daum at the University of Illinois at Chicago has a helpful document called "Hearing Loss in Musicians" which describes how a musician's hearing can be damaged by excess volume. She cites a study that claims 42% of tested musicians had greater hearing loss than expected for their ages. Audiometric Testing is her first point under "Prevention of Hearing Loss".

Use Headphones Responsibly

The iPod generation is here, and it almost seems that kids are born wearing headphones. And most seem unaware of how loud they are playing music through their headphones - especially teens. If you ask them to turn the volume down, they're more likely to turn it up! Playing loud music through headphones - and especially ear buds - causes hearing loss and tinnitus.

A study at Colorado University and Children's Hospital in Boston lists the following recommendations for listening to music through headphones safely:

  • Listening to earbuds, or in-ear headphones, for 90 minutes a day at 80% volume is probably safe for long-term hearing.
  • Reduce the volume to 70%, and you can safely listen to music for about 4½ hours a day.
  • Softer and quieter is better.
  • The risk of permanent hearing loss can increase with just five minutes of exposure a day to music at full volume.

Read this article on iPod Safety for more details.

Some Hints for Tinnitus Sufferers

I'm not alone. There seems to be an increase in those suffering from tinnitus. Martha Irvine claims, "Hearing specialists say they're also seeing more people in their 30s and 40s - many of them among the first Walkman users - who suffer from more pronounced tinnitus, an internal ringing or even the sound of whooshing or buzzing in the ears."

Many years ago someone in a MIDI newsgroup I followed said, "Tinnitus is a pain in the neck." I'm not sure whether they were joking or just confused, but it's true. Constant ringing in your ears can almost drive you mad. Here are a few hints that make it more bearable:

  • Limit exposure to loud noises and sounds. You don't want it to get worse!
  • Avoid silence - your tinnitus will sound more pronounced. When you can, have some quiet music playing. My doctor agrees that this is better for my ears.
  • Limit your intake of caffeine and nicotine, both of which can exacerbate the effects of tinnitus.
  • Some other foods and drinks that may increase the effects of tinnitus are: alcohol, salt, spice and food additives (especially MSG). This isn't hard and fast - people vary in how food affects their tinnitus.
  • Increase your blood flow through regular exercise. This combats tinnitus.
  • Get more sleep. Lack of sleep can cause tinnitus to become more pronounced.

Most of these hints came from the following helpful sites: The British Tinnitus Association, Tinnitus Advice and Tips, Avoiding and Reducing the Effects of Tinnitus.

Is There a Cure for Tinnitus?

The British Tinnitus Association gives this advice: "Do not feed the tinnitus by putting your life on hold while you chase a ‘cure’. There is no proven cure for tinnitus at this time – when there is, you’ll be sure to know about it!"

It is worth seeing a doctor about tinnitus, though. Tinnitus has a variety of causes, and treatment will vary depending on the cause. Besides exposure to loud noise, tinnitus may be caused by infection, inner ear damage, ear wax blockage, changes to ear bones, stress, head and neck injuries, blood disease, and so on. Determining the cause and treatment for tinnitus is a doctor's job, and shouldn't be left to amateurs.

This year I'm determined to see what can be done for my tinnitus. My current doctor has sent me for scans to rule out some of the more dangerous causes, including brain tumors. (And fortunately he has ruled these out!) He has syringed my ears, and given me ear drops.

And he trialled some tablets that affect the inner ear (the label on the bottle said they were for dizziness), which he said had helped his tinnitus. After the first week I told him that they didn't seem to be helping, but after two weeks, the volume of my tinnitus seemed to have decreased. I'll have to talk to him further about this.

Have you suffered hearing damage or tinnitus because of being a musician? Are you a musician who is taking steps to preserve your hearing? Do you have any suggestions that might help me or the other readers? Please leave a comment.

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