Hearing Loss Strikes a Sour Note for Too Many Musicians
October is National Protect Your Hearing Month
Research has found that many musicians, conductors, teachers, and others working in the music industry face the danger of hearing loss and other hearing disorders, but they can take steps to save their hearing and their livelihood.
Musicians and music educators often perform, practice, or direct music in loud places. Whether it is the pounding beats of rock and rap—or perhaps surprisingly—the rich crescendos of orchestral refrains, music played loud enough and long enough can harm unprotected ears.
In industrial settings, workers bombarded by the loud noise of power tools and machinery turn to earplugs and earmuffs to protect their hearing when the noise can’t be lessened at its source. But those who make music and depend on their abilities to hear subtle pitch differences, ironically, are often the last to seek help to preserve their hearing.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) researched sound levels produced during middle and high school music classes and marching band rehearsals. NIOSH researchers found sound levels that ranged from 91–97 decibels, which were A-weighted, or dB(A). This is the decibel scale that reflects the range of human hearing. Levels were sometimes higher than 100 dB(A), and during six different classes and rehearsals that spanned 228 minutes, a band director was exposed to an average sound level of 92 dB(A).
To protect hearing, NIOSH recommends that noise exposure not exceed 85 dB(A) averaged over an 8-hour daily work shift. The louder the noise, the sooner that it can damage hearing. For instance, musicians who practice or perform at an average sound level of 94 dB(A) would begin to be at risk after only about an hour.
NIOSH developed its recommended exposure limit to assess the risk of hearing loss among industrial workers exposed to steady noise during 8-hour work shifts, for up to a 40-year working lifetime. For this reason, these recommendations may need to be adapted to musicians, who often have irregular schedules that are hard to predict. Performing musicians typically play less than 4 hours a day, and they sometimes have just two or three sessions or work shifts a week.
In its publication, “Reducing the Risk of Hearing Disorders Among Musicianspdf icon,” NIOSH cited research findings showing that music-induced hearing loss happens slowly and over a long time. Most musicians do not seek help until they start having secondary symptoms such as tinnitus (buzzing or ringing in the ears), sound distortions, diplacusis (hearing the same notes at different pitches), or hyperacusis (extreme sensitivity to everyday sounds).
Even orchestral music can produce sound levels loud enough to damage hearing. NIOSH cited research that found that orchestra musicians can be exposed to the following noise levels:
- Percussionists, 95 dB(A).
- Flute/piccolo players, 95 dB(A).
- Brass players, 92–97 dB(A).
Marching bands produced sound levels of 95–122 dB(A) for base drums, 106–118 dB(A) for cymbals, and 95–113 dB(A) for snare drums. Studies of sound exposure during college band performances and rehearsals found average levels of concert and symphonic bands were 89–90 dB(A), and 52% of musicians had a daily noise dose that exceeded the NIOSH recommended exposure limit.
NIOSH urges hearing conservation programs for all workplaces with noise levels higher than the recommended exposure limit of 85 dB(A). Because it’s a musician’s goal to make musical sound, attempts to promote hearing safety should focus on behavior. Musicians should be aware of the threat to their hearing, know what causes and what can prevent hearing loss, have the competency to take effective action, and be accountable while they produce music.
Employers, music venue operators, schools, colleges, and anyone else responsible for music-related activities should consider the following tips, as well as others detailed in the NIOSH publication:
- Encourage participation in educational and awareness campaigns on music-induced hearing loss.
- Conduct regular sound level assessments to identify whether levels ever exceed 85 dB(A).
- Begin a program to prevent hearing loss if sound levels are above 85 dB(A). The program should include annual hearing testing and training.
- Identify hearing protection solutions that work best for the individual musicians or affected workers.
Musicians should consider taking the following actions:
- Monitor the level and duration of your exposure to musical sounds. If professional sound measurement equipment is not available, some smartphone apps have provided useful and accurate information about sound levels. See the NIOSH Science Blog for more information.
- Play music at lower levels during individual and group rehearsals, whenever possible.
- Get a yearly hearing evaluation by a licensed audiologist.
- Give your ears some rest—take advantage of breaks in quiet areas when possible.
- Wear hearing protection when appropriate; some hearing protectors are manufactured and targeted specifically for musicians.
The above post is reprinted from materials provided by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The original publication was written by Chucri Kardous, Christa Themann, and Thais Morata from the NIOSH Division of Field Studies and Engineering (DFSE); Jennifer Reynolds of the University of Florida College of Medicine; and Susan Afanuh from the NIOSH Division of Science Integration (DSI). John Lechliter of NIOSH DSI adapted the report for this article.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Reducing the risk of hearing disorders among musicians. By Chucri Kardous, Christa Themann, Thais Morata, Jennifer Reynolds, Sue Afanuh; 2015. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2015-184.