What musicians need to know about hearing protection
Noise-induced hearing loss can be a career-killer for a musician, so prevention is critical
Musicians—whether they play in concert halls, garages, the marching band, or venues of all sizes—are exposed to a lot of noise, over a lot of time.
That’s hard on the ears. “The more intensely the ears are used with loud music or noise, the more wear and tear accumulates and the sooner damage can occur,” says Hadassah Kupfer, AuD, an audiologist and adjunct clinical faculty member at the City University of New York-The Graduate Center. This can lead to:
All types of music can damage hearing
“Many people think that only rock or punk music can be damaging. This is untrue,” says Moira Daley Bell, AuD, director of the Hearing & Balance Program at Yale Medicine. Orchestra musicians seated by the brass section can have hearing damage, while violinists may experience it in the ear closest to their instrument, she says. “All music, if played too loud, can and will damage hearing regardless of the genre.”
Being a musician can have an effect of speeding up your ears’ aging process, Kupfer says. It’s because they’re “giving their ears large doses of sound without much time to recover,” she says.
Fortunately, there are ways to prevent hearing loss while you’re practicing and performing. Here’s when musicians should wear ear protection, and details on available options.
When should musicians wear hearing protection?
Put simply: “Hearing protection is recommended anytime one’s environment exceeds 80 dBA [decibels],” Bell says.
Some things that are around 80 decibels include city traffic and leaf blowers, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You can also use the tips in this page on how to know when it's too loud to make sure you're within safe noise limits.
If you’re not sure how loud it is in a venue, on stage, or anywhere in your daily life, you also can download a free decibel meter on your phone, Bell notes.
“That means [musicians should wear hearing protection] during practice sessions as well as performances,” Bell says.
It's not just volume, it's duration, too
Other occasions also merit hearing protection, Kupfer says. It’s not just how loud sounds are that matters, but the length of time that you’re exposed to the loud sounds. So, for musicians, who may often partake in a loud activity, it’s best to “limit the amount of noise you have for the rest of the day, so you don't overdo it and cause damage,” Kupfer says.
If you’re a musician, be cautious in other loud situations (think: sports events, fireworks, around power tools, and so on). Plus: Don’t crank up the volume on headphones, Bell cautions. “Listeners want to make sure that the volume level of the device is set at or below 80 dBA if they are to be listening for long periods of time,” she says.
Your body will send a cue when the noise levels have been overly loud: “If your ears are ringing or your hearing is muffled after an exposure you should have been using hearing protection or decreased the volume of the device playing the music,” Bell says. This is known as the temporary threshold shift.
Types of hearing protection and ear plugs for musicians
There are several basic options when it comes to over-the-counter hearing protection:
“Earplugs protect against loud environments by sealing off your outer ear canal,” Bell says. You’ll find options at the drugstore in a variety of sizes and materials, she says. This includes foam, plastic, and putty earplugs.
But while they’re widely accessible, foam plugs and similar designs “attenuate high frequencies more than they do low and mid frequencies,” Kupfer says. This could distort music by compressing the dynamic range.
If you’ll be wearing the earplugs while you’re performing or attending a show, seek out options labeled "musician plugs."
"This means they have a special filter inside of them to evenly lower all the frequencies, so the music quality sounds the same—just softer," Kupfer says.
And, read the instructions before donning a pair. “They must be inserted correctly to ensure maximum protection,” Bell says. Be sure to store them correctly, such as in a carrying case.
Here’s what to consider when you purchase earplugs:
More tips can be found in our article finding the right earplugs for you.
While earplugs sit inside your ear canal, earmuffs go over the ear. “Earmuffs block out noise by completely covering the outer ear,” Bell says. You’ll often see these on children at concerts and sporting events. While the protection is strong, earmuffs are a more eye-catching and prominent option.
Custom-fit hearing protection: What are the options?
These are made from soft silicone, and the color, shape and strength of the filter can be customized, Kupfer says. “They fit really well and comfortably,” she says.
There’s no real contest when it comes to a custom hearing protection versus OTC option. “While over the counter options offer excellent protection against loud sounds, they can impede the quality and clarity of music,” Bell says—and that’s true even for OTC plugs designed for musicians.
With a custom-fit option, you can even get “replaceable sound filters to allow you to select the level of sound protection for each situation,” Bell says.
To get custom-fit hearing products, you’ll need to visit a hearing professional. They “can take the measurements needed for such a product [and] recommend and order the best setup for you,” Kupfer says. Typically, this involves taking an impression of your ear and sending the mold out to be made, which can take a few weeks. You can expect to pay at least $150, and up to $400 for custom-fitted hearing protection.
If you're in a city with a lot of musicians, there may be local organizations who help provide affordable or free hearing care, such as the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, which hosts hearing clinics.
“These products are great for folks who need to use hearing protection every day and want something extremely comfortable and cosmetically appealing,” Kupfer says. They’re also ideal if you often find that headphones fall out of your ears since custom-fitted options will be sized to fit your ear precisely, she says.
Custom in-ear monitors
Another option for musicians to consider is custom in-ear monitors.
These “are much more sophisticated electronic devices, most often used by professional performers onstage,” Kupfer says.
They’re made from hard acrylic (not the soft silicone of custom hearing protection) and also molded to fit your ear shape.
Here’s how in-ear monitors work: “They plug into a receiver, which receives signals from a transmitter, so the wearer hears the precise music from specific instruments at an adjustable volume—rather than the whole blast of music from the entire concert stadium,” Kupfer explains.
By wearing them, you can hear what’s playing while also protecting your hearing. “Since these devices are electronic and require a full setup, you can expect them to cost $1-2K and up,” Kupfer says.
'The best hearing protection is the one that you will wear'
Any of the options listed here can be helpful. If you’re not sure what to pick, keep this wisdom in mind: “The best hearing protection is the one that you will wear; you should choose a comfortable device that you are willing to wear consistently,” Bell says.
Note: If you wear hearing protection that sits in your ear, you may experience more earwax buildup since the plugs can push wax deeper into the ear—and this, in turn, means you might require more frequent ear cleanings, Kupfer says.
When to see an audiologist
If you’re concerned about your hearing—or know you’ve been in situations that could have been hard on your ears already—consider making an appointment with an audiologist or hearing instrument specialist. Noise-induced hearing loss (which can lead to tinnitus in musicians) is preventable, and the earlier it's detected, the easier it is to treat.
Don’t dismiss symptoms such as ringing in your ears or difficulty hearing others, Kupfer says.
“It is a good idea to have a baseline hearing test, as well as periodic hearing tests to make sure your hearing isn't dropping too quickly,” she says.
The good news? If you do have hearing loss, professionally-fitted hearing aids can be programmed for music listening.
Related: Prince's longtime keyboardist shares journey to hearing aids