What do Phil Collins, Brian Wilson, Barbra Streisand, and Ludwig van Beethoven have in common, besides all being musicians? All of these musicians experienced – as a result of playing the music they love – permanent hearing loss.
When musicians come to me for treatment, I feel obliged to inform them of a lamentable fact of life – playing music may damage their hearing. Exposure to loud music causes noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), which can produce a temporary ringing in the ears (tinnitus); if you continue to expose yourself to the loud music, the condition can become permanent.
The hearing loss can happen to any musician, whether they play in a rock band, in a symphony orchestra, in a chamber music group, or just play at home when rehearsing. You can experience hearing loss when exposed for a prolonged period of time to any sound over 85 decibels (dB). An electric guitar played onstage generates 120dB, but a violin can produce 103dB, and thus cause almost as much hearing loss. In fact, audiologists researching hearing loss in musicians have found that overexposure to sound while rehearsing adds up to more hours than they spend on stage performing.
By investing in a pair of earplugs – high-quality musicians earplugs, not the cheap foam earplugs you find in pharmacies – you can take steps to protect your hearing. The first musicians earphones were invented by Etymotic Research, and other manufacturers still use their design to create specialized ear protection for musicians. Unlike the cheap Styrofoam earplugs that simply block sound, musician ear protection customized for you by your audiologist allows you to hear your normal full range of sound, just at a reduced volume ensuring your hearing is protected. You can find universal-fit musicians earplugs in most stores that sell musical instruments, starting at about $15 a pair. But for the musicians I see – whether they play professionally or just for fun – I recommend custom-molded musicians earplugs with Etymotic filters, because of the greater protection they provide. These will be more comfortable to wear for long periods of time, more effective at blocking undesirable levels of noise while allowing you to hear the music properly, and easier to clean and care for. Yes, they’re more expensive than the earplugs sold in music stores, but since hearing damage is irreversible, how much is your ability to hear the music you play worth to you?