Have you ever finished playing or practicing your instrument, or come out of a gig, with your ears ringing? If so, you could be storing up long term problems for your hearing. Tinnitus (an unexplained ringing or buzzing in the ears) is a common condition among musicians and, though often temporary, can be an early sign that your hearing is getting damaged and so should not go unchecked.
Speaking with other musicians on this subject, it has been noticeable that pretty much everyone has a story which they are eager to share: either their own experiences of excessive noise levels and hearing issues, or those of friends; tales of occasional nagging symptoms right through to debilitating, career curtailing single episodes. Perhaps more worrying has been the response to my follow up question, asking whether these folks are now wearing any kind ear defence? The answer, all too often, being a sheepish “Err, no…”. Each account has served to make my own investigations in the search for good knowledge – and hopefully some answers – ever more thorough.Now, I should state quite clearly here that I am not a doctor or audio therapist of any kind whatsoever – just a musician with an inquisitive nature, hoping to pass on some helpful info or help open eyes (and ears!) to an issue all too often ignored or avoided. I would also recommend before acting on any of the following advice, that you consult your doctor.
“Don’t ever put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear!” (My mum).
Before getting subjective in outlining my own experiences, I thought I should start here with some official advice and legislature from both the national medical and health & safety bodies:
How loud is too loud? (Taken from the NHS’s ‘Live Well’ guidelines): “The risk of damage to your hearing is based on two factors: how loud and for how long. Experts agree that continued exposure to noise at or above 85dB over time can cause hearing loss. You’ve been listening too loudly or for too long if you have ringing in your ears or dull hearing after listening to loud music. However, you may still be damaging your hearing even if you don’t have these symptoms. If loud music ever causes pain in your ears, leave the room or turn it down immediately. Without noise measuring equipment it is impossible to tell what noise level you are being exposed to. So, a handy rule of thumb is that if you can’t talk to someone two metres away without shouting, the noise level could be damaging.”
I particularly liked their idea of taking on a ‘noise diet’!
…and from the www.hse.gov.uk site: “The level at which employers must provide hearing protection and hearing protection zones is now 85 decibels (daily or weekly average exposure) and the level at which employers must assess the risk to workers’ health and provide them with information and training is now 80 decibels. There is also an exposure limit value of 87 decibels, taking account of any reduction in exposure provided by hearing protection, above which workers must not be exposed.”
So, what can we deduce from these guidelines? Well, 85dB would appear to be an official ‘tipping point’ as far as noise exposure levels are concerned, and I personally really like the idea of being able to put some sort of figure to the otherwise rather abstract term ‘too loud’. Having said that, being a regular user of ear defence in various playing and teaching situations, for me, anything up from the mid 70dB range can start getting uncomfortable without my plugs in…
As musicians, we can’t always be sure of how many dB of exposure we will experience in a given performance, or when the next unexpected bang, crack or feedback howl is going to blast from a high powered PA system; as human beings, we may not know how much natural sensory loss we can personally expect with our advancing years. What we do know is that it is likely we will work in sound level environments up to, and sometimes over this 85dB point – and so caution should most certainly be the word when it comes to our playing and listening to music.
Tinnitus: the first time you notice a ringing during or after playing can be the early warning signs that you should be protecting your ears.
Understanding Decibels: After getting some brief initial advice from an audiologist, I got myself a decibel meter app’ for my phone, accurate to a couple of dB (decibels).
Now, I know volume to be a somewhat abstract concept at best from time spent in various recording environments (peak/average levels; perceived volume affected by microphone proximity, compression, limiting, EQ etc…) and even getting basic levels to sit comfortably for all at live gigs (it’s likely to start a heck of a lot quieter than it will end up!). I was initially quite surprised at how the numbers came out when logging readings in various settings: Sat here at home, I can hear the feint rumble of the central heating and a very distant aeroplane: the meter is measuring around +35dB. In our tuition rooms at the Dye House Drum Works, if I play live rock drums along to a backing track, this gives a peak at around +86dB and an average of +75dB (oddly, the same sort of playing in a live scenario gave a very similar reading). Practicing rudiments on a pad gave me a maximum reading of 68dB with an average of 61dB.
Typical decibel approximations:
- 20dB Watch ticking
- 40dB Suburban street
- 60dB Normal conversation
- 80dB Loud music
- 85dB (At a continuous level, 8 hours maximum permissible safe exposure) From here on, every additional 3dB halves the safe exposure time, so:
- 88dB (continuous exposure: maximum 4 hours)
- 91dB (2 hours)
- 94dB (1 hour)
- 97dB (30 mins)
- 100dB Typical rock concert (15 minutes of safe exposure!!)
- 130dB Jet engine at 30m
- 140 dB Threshold of pain
Interestingly, I can remember playing in venues with decibel meters which fed circuit breakers strapped across the electricity supply to the band: exceed the maximum volume pre-set on the meter and your power gets cut. I have seen these set at 92dB(!) and though this could be based on a ‘peak’ rather than ‘average’ reading, the RMS (read ‘average’) level could still be pretty high. Also, be aware that depending on the type of – and settings on – the decibel meter, these can also be affected more by the level of specific frequencies, rather than the wider spectrum’s overall volume.
Myth-busting: Is hearing loss frequency specific: do we experience losses in the frequencies we are exposed to more? Not necessarily: It can be all too easy to lay the blame at the door of snare drums and cymbals – all the high frequency stuff- for attacks on our ears, as these can sound more harsh. The truth is that bass frequencies – although apparently less cutting or shocking – at the same levels, can do just as much damage.
The ‘4k dip’ is not associated only with musicians: This is a regular symptom of hearing loss across a broad variation of sound exposures. The dip can also commonly appear at 6k or 3k – sometimes higher. If deterioration continues, these dips can begin to affect lower, mid-range frequencies. Source: http://www.audiologyonline.com
Ear Plugs – why use them?
- To prevent Hearing Damage. Our hearing is something we can easily take for granted – especially during our early years. Playing loud and ‘turning it up’ is often part of the fun when we are young, but that punishment can be stored up for later in life as the natural degradation of the senses starts to play a part. It is only then that we truly appreciate the way treated our ears ‘back then’. It is also worth remembering that not all hearing damage is gradual: it is possible for one, extreme single loud exposure to affect your hearing for good.
- Better concentration. Using ear plugs de-clutters the ambient sound floor of what you hear – there is more silence. The transient peaks/accent volumes are lowered – but are still apparent, so you can certainly hear rhythm more clearly, which for drummers is ace news! I certainly feel a sense of more rhythmic space when wearing mine, which helps with improvising in that moment where you are deciding what to play next. I also believe that consequently, my overall sense of time is also better with them in.
- An increased physical ease of playing. When I started using ear plugs regularly I noticed that I was markedly less tired after a gig, which could be down to hitting a little less hard, but I also experienced more of a ‘mental freshness’ post-performance and during & after a day’s teaching. Volume does not feel such a battle, so dynamic playing gets more focused.
Try this: Next time you practice or rehearse with your band, pop in your ear plugs and keep them in for the duration – until about 5 minutes before you are due to finish, then take them out and notice just how loud you really are! This can be a proper eye-opener! Also, notice if you feel less tired and more alert post-session.
So, what’s on offer? The medical profession appears unanimous that any ear protection is better than none, so at the very least a quick trip to your local chemists to spend a couple of quid on some foam plugs would be a good start. Take time to get used to wearing these – especially if you have been playing your instrument for a number of years, as they will create a new sound experience which can take a little getting used to. Avoid resorting to cotton wool as the fibres will break down in your ear and over time this will only serve to semi-permanently block them.
Specialist musicians’ earplugs can be an excellent investment and I would personally recommend the ER20 model. These are rated to give up to 16dB of protection and feature a tiny filtered whole along the length of the plug, which sits inside a series of silicone mushrooms arranged in a pyramid – small to large. Push them right in so they achieve the required seal and mould tightly to the contours of your uniquely shaped lug-holes. The plug’s filter is key here, as it allows a carefully controlled dose of top end to pass through, bringing an added clarity to what you hear.
Moving up the scale, there are several off-the-shelf filter-type plug designs offering varying frequency based or decibel specific reductions (lower dB rated, more subtle attenuation is popular with orchestral players, acoustic musicians and vocalists; at the other end I have also seen up to 27dB of mega-reduction for crazy, extreme high level situations!). Custom moulded plugs form the basis of the top end, which involves getting your ears pumped with a quick drying silicone to make an exact mould of your ear canal, achieving as near perfect a seal as possible, then adding one of a choice of specific filters, or even ‘in ear monitoring’ (IEM) drivers – similar to personal hi-fi headphones – but that’s a whole other story and one which I will comment on very soon. Watch this space.
One thing I would like to add if you are using, or thinking of using ear plugs: The Perils of Wax! Inserting your ear plugs can push the skin’s natural oils, wax and sweat etc. deep into the ear canal, where it could build up and harden: keep aware of this over time; check with your doc’ and maybe try using ear drops for occasional wax dispersal.
The most precious drums you own are the ones in your ears!