“Like visual artists who learn to work safely with toxic paints and chemicals, musicians need the expertise to handle high-intensity sounds.”
–The Musician’s Way, p. 283
We musicians fundamentally rely on our hearing, yet music school curricula have scarcely addressed the topic of hearing conservation.
As a result, most music students learn next to nothing about hearing protection nor how to deal with the dangerously high sound levels they’ll encounter in and out of school.
Hearing Loss is Permanent
It’s an unfortunate situation because hearing loss is permanent and 30-50% of professional musicians report hearing problems (see the Wellness page at MusiciansWay.com for more data and references).
Making matters worse, many collegiate ensembles rehearse and perform at exceedingly high sound levels – e.g., pep bands at U.S. college basketball games – so, in effect, some ensemble directors model a reckless disregard for hearing health.
“Most music students learn next to nothing about hearing protection nor how to deal with the dangerously high sound levels they’ll encounter in and out of school.”
Adding to those problems, in the US, entertainment businesses are exempt from the regulations that protect workers in other industries from noise-induced hearing loss.
Consequently, professional musicians – such as those working in orchestras, clubs and pit bands – are routinely exposed to injurious sound levels. Audio engineers and venue staff are also at risk.
There is some good news: Owing to changes in music school accreditation standards, educators are beginning to touch on hearing conservation. Still, with a few exceptions, such as the University of N. Texas and UNC-Greensboro, efforts are cursory and insufficient.
With all of this in mind, it’s up to us musicians to acquire the know-how we need to safeguard our hearing.
The following 10 tips help us reduce our sound exposure in both musical and non-musical activities. See Chapter 13 of The Musician’s Way for additional important details.
“It’s up to us musicians to acquire the know-how we need to safeguard our hearing.”
Ten Ways to Reduce Sound Exposure
1. Measure Sound Levels
A sensible first step is to use a meter to measure the sound levels in the settings where we practice and perform.
The easiest way to do so is to use the outstanding free sound level meter app for iOS devices released in 2017 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH); other sound level meters are available via Amazon.com.
With information about sound levels in hand, we can begin to calculate safe exposure times. See p. 280 of The Musician’s Way for a table showing numerous sound levels and their corresponding NIOSH-recommended safe exposure times.*
2. Practice & Perform at Lower Volumes
Another basic action involves decreasing our volume because, in truth, many of us practice and perform louder than necessary. Some musicians can also employ instrument mutes now and then during solo practice; drummers can use lightweight or soft-tipped sticks.
For ensembles, researcher Kris Chesky encourages conductors to emphasize softer playing, mix in dynamic contrasts, and restrict peak levels to musically appropriate moments.
3. Intersperse Louder and Softer Music
We should organize rehearsals and performances so that boisterous pieces are framed by more tranquil ones.
It’s also vital that we take breaks in quiet spaces to give our ears a rest.
4. Practice Efficiently
In solo practice, when we establish clear interpretive and technical maps, we optimize our learning process and minimize the need to repeat material.
Part I of The Musician’s Way delineates strategies that increase efficiency in both solo and ensemble practice.
5. Use Earplugs in Noisy Circumstances
If we plan to attend sporting events, dance clubs, rock concerts, movie theaters, or fireworks exhibits – or if we operate power equipment – we should consistently use earplugs and/or sound-blocking headphones.
6. Modify Acoustical Environments
When a meter shows excessive levels in our rehearsal spaces, along with reducing our volume, we might install sound-absorbing materials, move to larger spaces, and employ other tactics as described on pages 284-286 of The Musician’s Way.
We should use a meter before and after modifications to document any changes in sound levels.*
7. Turn Down the Stereo
We should always listen to recorded music at moderate volumes. That said, if we turn up for a favorite tune, we need to remember to turn down afterward.
What’s more, when traveling on extended trips, we should switch off the music for long periods rather than leaving it on nonstop.
A bonus tactic to lessen the impact of impulse sounds is to hum. When we vocalize, a muscle attached to the stapes bone in the middle ear contracts into a position that hinders sound waves from penetrating to the inner ear (the stapedius reflex). By humming, we get at least a few decibels of attenuation for several seconds, albeit the degree and duration of the effect vary among individuals.
If we expect a cymbal crash, let’s say, we can begin humming just prior to the bang and carry on humming throughout. For a few people, though, such vocalizing yields no effect, so we can’t count on humming as an everyday technique but should only use it as an emergency maneuver.
9. Report Problems & Ask for Help
If you’re concerned about the sound levels in the settings where your ensemble practices and performs, consult with teachers, colleagues, and music directors to identify and remedy problems.
For example, if you feel that ensemble volumes are excessive, or if you experience tinnitus or muffled hearing during or after a rehearsal, report it.
Sometimes, though, when we musicians get together in large groups or for long periods, our sound levels inevitably exceed safe limits. That’s where earplugs and in-ear monitors come in.
10. Keep Earplugs or In-Ear Monitors Handy
During rehearsals and performances, most of us, with the exception of percussionists, use earplugs as a last resort because we don’t play as well when wearing them and we don’t like how our music sounds with plugs in our ears.
Even so, when no other protective strategy is available, and we cannot escape high-volume environments such as orchestra pits or loud clubs, earplugs, even disposable foam plugs, remain our most practical options (costlier custom-fitted plugs suit some musicians). Performers of amplified music do well to consider in-ear monitoring systems.
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Lastly, we should keep in mind that hearing conservation is a complex subject. The suggestions compiled here don’t encompass everything that we need to know, nor do they don’t constitute medical advice.
If you’re concerned about your hearing, consult an audiologist to obtain a comprehensive evaluation. For a quick self-evaluation, try this free online hearing test, but be sure to use headphones, and test each ear individually (bring your results to your audiology appointment).
In fact, all of us should obtain professional audiograms to document our hearing status and then have our hearing checked periodically to monitor our hearing health.
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*Note that when hazardous sound levels are identified, professional assistance may be needed to obtain precise sound-level measurements and devise effective sound-reducing responses.
© 2017 Gerald Klickstein
Adapted in part from p. 286-288 of The Musician’s Way
Photo © Gang Liu, licensed from Shutterstock.com