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'So You Want to Be a Rock n Roll Star?' Musicians Miss the Beat

Whether your musical tastes run from Bachman-Turner Overdrive (You aint seen n-n-nothin yet) to Bach, the people playing your favorite tunes face a serious problem. Hearing loss.

In an article published on AudiologyOnline by hearing expert Dr. Marshall Chasin, an excellent overview of how musicians might effectively prevent music-induced hearing loss is provided. So whether youre first violin in a symphony orchestra or singing back-up for Celine Dion, you might want to learn a little more about what your job is doing to your hearing. It aint good. But there are things you can do to limit the problem, according to Dr. Chasin so listen up. Be sharp; not flat.

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Be sharp, not flat. Rock with protection

The Nature of Hearing Loss

Dr. Chasin, who has studied hearing loss in musicians, puts it this way, Hearing loss is a gradual process that may not be noticed for years. When it does happen, people generally notice that speech is mumbled and unclear. People may report a ringing (or tinnitus) in their ears or head. By that time, the only thing that may help is a hearing aid. While hearing aids have improved dramatically, they are not perfect.

If youre a professional musician and your hearing isnt perfect, it may have an impact on your career, unless you aspire to be the best garage band on your block. Then quality of hearing isnt as important as it is if youre playing cello in an orchestra. Loud hurts, though you may not notice it until its too late.

In addition to standing in front of the footlights, Dr, Chasin is quick to point out all of the other noise we encounter in daily life. Once you leave work, there are many sources of noise encountered in everyday life: traffic, loud music, MP3 players, lawn mowers, snowmobiles, and motor boats, to name a few. Even a noisy hockey arena can be damaging!

But Dr. Chasin goes on to point out that even quiet noise, over time, can damage the sensitive inner workings of the ear. Even quiet noise, depending upon how long you listen, can damage your hearing. It is surprising how quiet 85 dB [dB stands for decibel and is a measurement of how loud a sound is] noise actually sounds. Its true. 85 dBs isnt considered loud under a variety of circumstances. However, if that 85dB of sound pressure is the norm at work, its going to take a toll on your hearing in time.

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Click Here to View Larger Version of Table (PDF)

Figure 1: A list of common sounds and intensities. (Reprinted with permission from www.AudiologyOnline.com).

Acoustic Trauma

Dr. Chasin explains that not all hearing loss is gradual, especially in the musical venue. A single blast of high dB sound can cause acoustic trauma physical damage to the ear drum, the little bones that transfer sound vibrations and the cochlea, that snail-shaped, fluid filled organ that transforms sound waves into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain for interpretation and utilization.

Dr. Chasin quotes a report issued in 1994 by G.R. Price called Occasional Exposure to Impulsive Sounds. In the report, Price states that at lower SPLs (sound pressure levels, i.e. lower volume) losses [in hearing] are in all likelihood functions of the metabolic demand on the inner ear. Say what, now?

In other words, the hearing system simply tires out after years of exposure to everything from jackhammers to Jumpin Jack Flash. This isnt true of acoustic ear trauma. As the Price report explains, the [hearing loss] mechanism changes to one of mechanical disruption. In other words, acoustic trauma isnt the wearing out of the hearing mechanisms within the ear. the ear gets torn up physically, as Dr. Chasin put it.

Say you are present at a bands practice and the drummer clashes the cymbals with you standing right there. If intense enough, the single blast could potentially cause acoustic trauma, actually causing physical damage to the hearing mechanism. Acoustic trauma can lead to total deafness due to the malfunctioning hearing mechanism.

Protecting Your Ears from Growing Tired or Being Torn Up

Noise is inevitable but the ability to hear is especially important to professional musicians and music lovers. Thats why Dr. Chasin recommends tuned hearing protection for these artists.

Most noise protection comes in the form of earplugs or ear muffs. These work fine on the factory floor or when youre mowing the lawn. These devices block all sound loud, soft, relevant or irrelevant. These types of noise protection however are not ideal for musicians and music lovers as they do not block all the pitches equally and can alter the composition of the music.

This may be acceptable for many industrial workers, but is disastrous for many musicians, Dr. Chasin explains. In the past 15 years, there have been a series of earplugs available that are ideal for listening to music. These flat or uniform attenuator earplugs lessen the sound or noise energy equally across the spectrum. Music still sounds like music, but without that dead feeling.

The first sign of permanent hearing loss caused by extended exposure to moderate noise or occasional exposure to loud noise (attending concerts) is temporary hearing loss and/or ringing in the ears. In time, maybe a few hours or days, hearing returns to normal at least for now. However, that temporary hearing loss is a sign of permanent hearing loss in the future something no musician can afford.

Tools of the Musicians Trade

In addition to their instruments, more professional musicians are turning to ear monitors small, in-the-ear devices that are wirelessly connected directly into the amplification system. Each monitor can be adjusted to the preferences and needs of the musician.

These devices, commonly seen at rock venues, enable all musicians to hear their music while blocking out much of the noise (music) generated by other members of the band. So, not only do ear monitors allow the lead singer to concentrate on hitting that high note, it also provides him with some protection from the other noise coming from the stage.

Other steps musicians can take to dramatically lessen the impact of too many dBs in too short a time? Elevate those speakers to ear level. Dr. Chasin states, Tilting or aiming the loudspeaker up to the musicians' ear will ensure that the music has a "flatter" response. The overall level will tend to be lower on stage because the sound engineer will not need to compensate for a "peaky" response.

Another recommendation: High-frequency sounds are pumped in a straight line from the loudspeakers so by standing next to the speakers instead of in front or behind them affords a modicum of protection.

And hows this for a surprise? A main source of potential, long-term damage is actually the drummers high hat cymbal the cymbal with a top and a bottom that make a metallic whishing sound thats guaranteed to get you on your feet dancing to the beat. However, musicians on stage should stay clear of the high hat another small step that can protect hearing short- and long-term.

Many musicians employ ER-15 earplugs. ER series of earplugs are uniform (flat) attenuators manufactured by Etymotic Research. These enable the musician to hear the music but with less energy (intensity) across the full musical spectrum. Cool. You can hear the pounding bass drum without blowing out an ear drum.

Some bands and symphonies are also turning to Plexiglas dividers to separate loud instruments from softer instruments. Then, though the mixing console, sound levels can be adjusted for the audience so listeners hear the concerto as Mozart intended without causing acoustic trauma or tiring out the hearing system over a period of years.

There are other steps musicians can take to protect those sensitive ears. Humming, just prior to a loud cymbal crash or rim shot, causes a small muscle in the middle ear to contract when confronted by loud noise. The contraction tugs on the bones of the middle ear, making it harder for sound to reach the cochlea. Believe it or not, this little muscle is a protective device provided by nature so our own voices dont sound too loud.

For musician-specific fact sheets regarding appropriate ear protection and preventative measures, click here, and for auditory dangers associated with specific instrument locations and the recommended ear attenuators, click here.

So, what does Dr. Chasin recommend for music lovers? As in all things, moderation. If exposure to the loud noise is repeated often enough, temporary hearing loss can become permanent. The strategy would therefore involve moderation. If you go to a rock concert on Friday night, dont mow your lawn Saturday. Wait until Sunday, or better yet, get someone else to do it!

I like the way this guy thinks. Get someone else to do it and save your ears for the next band touring through your town. Awesome.

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