Essential Hearing Health for Musicians

Let me get this straight. If I like my music, it is less damaging to my hearing?

No. It’s the other way around. Liking the music will not decrease the potential damage. It’s an issue of disliking or hating it that makes music potentially more damaging. We’re not sure exactly why that happens, but there are two theories. One is that when you are under stress, certain hormones are released in your inner ear that makes it more susceptible to hearing loss. A second theory is related to the fact that there are a series of feedback loops from the brain back to the inner ear. These feedback signals can change the susceptibility of the inner ear to damage.

What else can happen as my hearing gets worse?

In some sense, hearing loss is the least of your worries. After all, it is very gradual, and only affects the very high pitched sounds, so you may not notice it for years to come. But, with hearing loss comes two other things that can be very annoying—or if you are a musician, can be career ending. They are pitch perception problems and permanent tinnitus. Pitch perception problems, as the name suggests, means that a person with a significant hearing loss may hear one note as another (and have limited understanding for speech). And can you imagine having a constant hum or whistle in your head day and night? This is what many people report with permanent tinnitus. So, prevention of hearing loss is where it’s at.

So what are the factors affecting hearing loss?

The two main factors are how intense the music or noise is, and how long one has been exposed to it. We know from research that prolonged exposure to 85 decibels (dB) or greater, over time will cause a permanent hearing loss. A level of 85 dB is not particularly loud – a dial tone on a telephone is about that! Even though it is not loud, it is intense enough to be damaging. But, it also depends on how long you are exposed to it. Research has found that the maximum exposure each week should be less than 85 dB for 40 hours. This is identical to 88 dB for only 20 hours. That is, for each increase of 3 decibels, you can only be exposed for half as long. Saying it differently, for every 3 decibel increase, your exposure doubles. Other less significant factors are your liking of the music, general health, and hereditary factors.

What happens when we get a music related hearing loss?
Most people reach the ripe old age of 50 without losing their hearing range, but others suffer a very slow and gradual hearing loss that may not be noticed for years. Certainly working in a noisy factory is one such cause. And listening to loud music is another. The ear is made up of three parts- the outer ear, the middle ear, and you guessed it, the inner ear. The inner ear is about the size of a small finger nail and contains about 15,500 nerve endings, called hair cells. When some of these hair cells are damaged, you have a permanent hearing loss. While damage to the outer and middle ears is usually temporary and can be treated by a doctor.

Can my hearing loss be treated with medicine or surgery?

Only hearing losses that are from the middle ear (where kids get ear infections) or from the outer ear (such as wax occlusion) can be treated. Rarely can a hearing loss be treated if it is from the inner ear. The inner ear is actually in the brain, so inner ear surgery is brain surgery! Having said all this, researchers are working on a “vaccination” that can be given to reverse inner ear hearing loss. Audiologists can test for hearing loss that can be treated with medicine or surgery.

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All information is provided in the interests of Hearing Health education and is of a general nature. In all cases you should consult your doctor or other allied health professional for advice regarding your individual circumstances.