Live performance is often a loud experience, meaning musicians face an increased risk of hearing loss. In this tutorial I'll explain what hearing loss is, how it affects your hearing and ways to minimise the risk.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
Caused by sudden impulse sounds—such as explosions, or continuous high volume levels—such as rock concerts, this refers to hearing loss that is either temporary or permanent. Such hearing loss can be partial or total and may affect one ear or both.
How Hearing Works
Part of your inner ear is a fluid-filled structure called the cochlea, containing a membrane that sports thousands of tiny hairs that sway when the fluid moves. For an analogy, picture a wheat field in the wind.
This causes a chemical release, generating an electrical impulse along the auditory nerve to the brain where it’s interpreted as sound.
Over-stimulation causes erratic or continuous vibration of these hairs. This is tinnitus, the ringing in the ears familiar to anyone who’s been to a fireworks display.
If you’re lucky, it lasts a few hours; if you’re not, it’s permanent.
The hairs can even die, causing partial or total hearing loss. Whilst some animals can regenerate these, humans can’t.
What to Listen For
There are three areas of concern:
- Sound Pressure Level
- Exposure Length
1. Sound Pressure Level
This is the force that sound exerts on a perpendicular surface. Put simply, it’s how much sound our ears are exposed to in any given moment. Measured in decibels, or dB, the higher the number the louder the sound.
Hearing loss is unlikely below 85dB, but increasingly likely at or above it. For reference:
- 60dB is normal conversation
- 85dB is heavy city traffic
- 105dB is maximum volume of an MP3 player
- 120dB is the sound of sirens
2. Exposure Length
The longer you spend in a loud environment then the greater your chance of hearing loss.
For example, club-goers are advised to take regular breaks. As well as preventing over-heating and dehydration, it gives your ears some respite from the loud music.
Some frequencies can be more harmful than others in that damage occurs sooner and at lower decibel levels.
Whilst science is divided, it’s been recognised since the 19th century that sounds around 4kHz tend to be more harmful. It’s not an absolute, as similar effects have been noted from 3–8kHz, and it depends per person. However, the regions around 4kHz can be uncomfortable at best. You'll be familiar with that awful noise when a bus brakes harshly. That's 4kHz.
As a musician, you’ll experience 4kHz every time cymbals are struck. Since you can’t ban their usage you'll need to find ways to mitigate the sound.
There are practical ways to defend your ears. I’ll be talking from a guitarist’s perspective—because I am one—but this is applicable in a number of circumstances.
Reduce the Volume
Remember, the louder and longer the exposure, to the music, the greater the risk. If you’re playing loudly because of the drummer, tactfully ask them to ease up on their John Bonham impression. If that doesn’t work…
If possible set up as far from the drums as you can. Remember, damage occurs due to impulse sounds—drums, and frequencies around 4kHz—cymbals.
Not only will this help, you’ll play more quietly because you’re no longer competing. Your ears will thank you, as will the band.
I was once put next a keyboard player at a rehearsal. Immediately we realised this wouldn’t work; our instruments occupied similar frequencies, so we struggled to hear ourselves.
Instinct is to play louder and that annoys everyone. It also ncreases the risk of hearing loss.
There are two solutions:
- Stand somewhere else—see Distance
- Learn to EQ yourself. If you recognise where the instrument’s strongest frequencies are, reduce the weaker ones. You’ll hear, and be heard, more clearly plus your overall volume level will be lower
Playing at stadium volumes is fine if you actually play stadiums, but literally deafening if you’re in a rehearsal room.
The smaller the room, the quieter you should be.
Unless you’re playing an acoustic gig, to a hushed crowd, you should wear either ear plugs or in-ear monitors.
Covering your ears—such as wearing ear defenders—is effective, but hardly practical. Thus, there are a number of solutions that prolong the safe period of exposure before loss occurs.
Plugs that just block the ears, such as foam, are cheap with a pack of 20 pairs from pharmacies are under £7. Your hearing, however, is now muffled, so you’ll played louder and that defeats the whole exercise.
Specialised plugs attenuate certain frequencies that means you’ll still hear to a useful extent and harmful exposure times are reduced. For years I’ve used Alpine Music Safe Pro plugs. They’re discreet, come in a small carry case and you can choose the level of attenuation up to 25dB. Prices start around £15.
I’ve recently tried Isolate from Flare Audio. These are metal plugs designed to block the ear canal and hearing occurs via bone conductivity. Volume reduction is impressive, and frequency response is quite natural. They take getting used to, but my hearing hasn’t suffered during exposure. Prices start from £25.
These are discreet headphones that plug your ears. Sound engineers love them, as they reduce the need for onstage speakers. Provided with a good mix, you should hear everything clearly.
However, they’ve three major drawbacks:
- They’re not cheap. Plugs aside, you need a separate receiver and transmitter. The very cheapest start above £100
- Batteries and electronics; if any fail, you won’t hear a thing
- If the environment’s loud, you’ll turn your monitors up. As they’re in your ears, the risk of hearing loss increases, defeating the object
Personally, I don’t use them; I prefer earplugs and achieving a good onstage mix
Hearing is precious, so protect it by:
- Avoiding excessive volume, long exposures, and harmful frequencies
- Set overall volume to the size of the room
- Move away from loud sounds
- EQ increases clarity without boosting overall volume
- Don’t compete with high volumes or similar sounds
- Use flat-frequency ear plugs