Unfortunately, we all have another instrument that we don't take as much care of - our ears. As students, the concept of hearing protection is rarely on the agenda. As professionals, it comes up occasionally if the score in symphony orchestra is particularly loud, or you are sitting too close to the wind and brass. On these occasions you would usually do the right thing and use a screen or have foam earplugs. What you won't realise however, is that the entire time you are working you could be hurting your ears, and your private practice could be doing just as much damage.
Noise is measured in decibels which is an exponential scale. This means that an increase of 3 decibels means a doubling of the sound energy whilst an increase of 10 decibels is a 10 fold increase. The louder the noise, the faster it damages the ear.
The WHO's safe listening times are:
- 85 dB - the level of noise inside a car - eight hours
- 90 dB - lawn mower - two hours 30 minutes
- 95 dB - an average motorcycle - 47 minutes
- 100 dB - car horn or underground train - 15 minutes
- 105 dB - mp3 player at maximum volume - four minutes
- 115 dB - loud rock concert - 28 seconds
- 120 dB - vuvuzela or sirens - nine second
If you are exposed to a one off loud event such as a rock concert, many people will notice a ringing in their ears. The ringing noise is known as tinnitus and it is effectively the loud noise damaging the hair cells that convert sound waves into neural signals, inside the inner ear. The ear is quite resilient however and after a few hours or days, the ear may repair itself and the ringing goes away. Our problem as instrumentalists is the sustained length of time we are exposed to such loud noise and the regularity of it. Our ears aren't given the required recovery time and the damage gradually becomes permanent.
Now, if we look at the chart below and see how loud our instruments are... Ouch! To be safe, if playing at the top of the dynamic range, most of us should be playing our own instruments for less than an hour a day. Near on an impossibility for a professional musician. Considering a work day is generally 6 hours, plus another hour for private practice, most of us would be well outside acceptable exposure to noise. And worse, this is day after day after day. To add to the danger, be aware that it is usually the higher frequency instruments that do the most damage, for instance the violin, piccolo and oboe.
|Sound Levels of Music|
|Normal piano practice||60 -70dB|
|Fortissimo Singer, 3'||70dB|
|Chamber music, small auditorium||75 - 85dB|
|Piano Fortissimo||84 - 103dB|
|Violin||82 - 92dB|
|Flute ||92 -103dB|
|Clarinet||85 - 114dB|
|French horn||90 - 106dB|
|Trombone||85 - 114dB|
|Tympani & bass drum||106dB|
|Walkman on 5/10||94dB|
|Symphonic music peak||120 - 137dB|
|Amplifier, rock, 4-6'||120dB|
|Rock music peak||150dB|
So what precautions can we take to limit this damage?
- When practicing, take some time out, a few minutes every hour where you literally give your ears a rest
- Stay hydrated; dehydration is not good for inner ear function
- Use visualisation and mental practice rather than spending your whole practice session physically practicing.
- Violinist Yehudi Menuhin practised with a practice mute most of the time. This could be a solution if you have sensitive ears
- Make sure the room you practice in is not too ‘loud.’ Damp the sound with rugs and cushions if there are too many hard surfaces
- Wear earplugs in large ensembles
- Don’t set your headphones too high when you listen to music
Earplugs are an important piece of kit. Forget the foam ones (although they are better than nothing!). Specially moulded earplugs with a filter embedded in them are available. These sophisticated earplugs uniformly cut down the frequencies, taking 9, 15 or 25 decibels (depending on your model) off the overall noise level. Earplugs are always problematic as players can feel 'removed' from a performance but these silicon, musician designed ones are a great solution. Musicians report that once they have got used to them, they often hear their own instruments better with them in, and the other instruments seem nicely balanced too. These earplugs range from £140 - £180 per set but are well worth the investment.
It is estimated that perhaps 43% of professional musicians have some level of hearing loss, although most goes undiagnosed. Like any medical scenario, some people are more genetically predisposed to damage than others. This means that two people exposed to the same levels of noise may well be affected differently. Unlike having our eyes tested and wearing glasses, there is somehow a stigma attached to hearing loss and many musicians are unwilling to admit they have a problem and therefore do not seek help. Even moderate hearing loss can have an impact on your life. So what to do if you notice a problem? You can go to your GP and ask for a referral to audiology and/or ENT department. Once referred, the damage will be assessed and a treatment discussed. You are even able to ask for musician's earplugs, although at a cost. Another option is to contact the Musician's Hearing Services - based in Harley Street London. They are passionate about the specific hearing needs of musicians and entertainment industry personnel and work closely with the Musicians Union and the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine. They provide a range of tailor-made services including advice on hearing protection, onsite noise assessments, and specialist technology for those affected by hearing loss. Their clients are wide ranging from The Royal Opera House and numerous West End Musicals to a host of well-known bands, DJ's performers, sound engineers, TV presenters as well as festival and club-goers.
Awareness of potential noise damage to musicians is on the increase but it is still far from where it should be, particularly in younger musicians. There is definitely an element of 'it won't happen to me'. It is perhaps time for employers, music schools and teachers to take more responsibility in outlining the dangers and encouraging all players to have earplugs. Earplugs should be part of your standard kit, up there with mutes, metronomes, tuners and your pencil and rubber.
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