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Hearing conservation: an ear for music

Contributed by , staff writer

It's difficult for singer-songwriter Preston Brust to remember life without music. As a boy, he took piano lessons, then began writing songs in high school. At his mother's urging, he moved to Nashville in June of 2002 where he met Chris Lucas, another aspiring singer-songwriter. The two played their first show together in the back room of Tootsies in 2004, then hit the road as the LoCash Cowboys in 2005. Since then, they've shared the bill with artists such as Charlie Daniels and ZZ Top. The duo co-wrote "You Gonna Fly," recorded by Keith Urban in 2011, and "Truck Yeah," a single released by Tim McGraw in 2012, both which sold more than a million copies. Brust also co-wrote "The Dash," which appeared on Scotty McCreery's album.                                                                                 

LoCash's LIVIN' LOUD TOUR, which kicked off in Las Vegas in December 2013, is rocking venues from Live Oak, Florida to Greeley, Colorado to Des Moines, Iowa. By the time the tour ends in November 2014, LoCash will have brought their high energy, live country music show to more than 150 towns and cities across the United States.  

noise-induced hearing loss
Chris Lucas (left) and Preston Brust of
the LoCash Cowboys.

Like most musicians enjoying this level of success, Brust knows his hearing is taking a beating. "I'm around loud concert music almost every day and every night - sound checks, studios, live shows, etc - so my ears are subjected to all kinds of craziness out here," he said. "Sometimes we just have to give our ears a break. They get tired and everything starts sounding the same - the lows, the highs, the volumes. I guess that's when you know they've had enough and you need to walk away for a while."

Noise-induced hearing loss

Health professionals estimate 26 million Americans have hearing loss which may have been caused by exposure to noise at work or through leisure activities. Of them, five million are children between the ages of six and 19. Musicians like the LoCash Cowboys risk permanent hearing loss from prolonged exposure to the loud music they create. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to monitor employee working conditions and provide hearing protection for environments sustaining noise levels above 85 decibels (dB) over an eight hour time frame, there is no regulatory agency protecting musicians' hearing health in the United States.

That's concerning because musicians, sound crews, recording engineers and other music industry professionals work in environments where sound levels reach 90-120 dB on a daily basis. This type of noise exposure puts these professionals at risk for permanent hearing loss and tinnitus, which can jeopardize their music careers.

Most noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is caused by damage to hair cells (stereocilia) in the inner ear. These hair cells are responsible for translating the noise our ears collect into electrical impulses our brains eventually interpret as sound. Once these hair cells are damaged, they cannot be repaired. Tinnitus is often described as a constant ringing in the ears and is commonly caused by prolonged exposure to loud noise.  Musicians such Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am has admitted to suffering from tinnitus, along with Noel Gallagher (Oasis) and Ryan Adams.

Hearing preservation efforts

Hearing Education Awareness for Rockers (H.E.A.R.) is nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of the dangers of noise exposure that can lead to these hearing impairments. The organization was founded by rock and roll musician Kathy Peck and physician Flash Gordon in 1988 after they attended an excessively loud concert. Pete Townshend, who says he is almost completely deaf from noise-induced hearing loss he incurred from using headphones in the recording studio during his years as lead guitarist and songwriter with the WHO, is one of their biggest supporters. Townshend and Lars Ulrich of Metallica, along with celebrities such as Jack Black, appear in H.E.A.R. public service announcements to promote hearing preservation among their colleagues and encourage music aficionados to wear ear plugs during live music events.

Brust, who has a 30% hearing loss in his left ear from a BB-gun injury he sustained when he was 12 years old, is protective of the hearing he has left. When LoCash began touring, they originally used monitor wedges, onstage speakers that creates a custom mix for each musician. "The volume can get pretty loud when there's seven or eight guys onstage and all of them have their own wedges rockin'," he said. "Now we use in ear monitors, which are like ear buds - so the stage can be pretty quiet at times. I can't speak for the music industry as a whole, but for us, it's helped a little bit. I just love that it (the music) goes directly to my ear and it's my own mix."

In-ear monitors (IEM) are ear pieces containing two or three speakers, which are individually molded to the musician's ear by an audiologist. When inserted into the ear canal, the device effectively seals off outside noise and delivers a custom mix of vocals and instrumentation directly to the musician's ear.

Using the right equipment is one way to protect your hearing, especially when it's combined with other safeguards. The House Research Institute (HRI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with hearing loss, lists five ways musicians and their fans can practice hearing conservation:

  1. Get a baseline hearing test. Noise-induced hearing loss typically occurs in the higher frequencies and is usually hard to detect until it's well advanced. If you're involved in the music industry or just love to listen to loud music, it's best to have your hearing tested by a hearing health professional. Once you know what you're working with, it's easy to make a preservation plan.
  2. Avoid loud environments, whenever possible. If you have to shout to be heard, chances are your hearing is in danger. If you can't avoid these situations, take precautions. Sit at the back of the auditorium or away from the speakers and give your ears a break by spending a few minutes in a quiet area for a few minutes every hour. When using your personal electronic devices, keep the volumes set at no more than 60 percent of their maximum potential.
  3. Choose the right hearing protection. True music aficionados can have their music and preserve their hearing at the same time by investing in a pair of custom-fit ear plugs, available from a licensed audiology clinic.
  4. Keep ears clean. Believe it or not, dirty ears can muddle sound. Wash them gently with a warm washcloth and resist the temptation to stick cotton swabs in your ear canal. If you think you have some wax buildup that needs to be removed, schedule an appointment with your physician.
  5. Have your hearing tested annually. Schedule an annual checkup for your ears just like you do for your eyes. Establishing a relationship with an audiologist you trust can help you identify potential hearing loss issues while there's still time to correct them.

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