If you’ve previously attended a modern rock concert and found yourself thinking, “That music is way too darned loud,” it does not necessarily indicate that you’re getting old. This reaction could be your body’s means of informing you that you are in danger of hearing damage. If later, after you have left the concert, and for the next day or two you’ve had a ringing in your ears (tinnitus) or experienced difficulty hearing as well as usual, you might have experienced NIHL – noise induced hearing loss.
This can happen even with brief exposures to high decibel noises, and occurs because loud sounds can cause physical damage to the tiny hair cells that receive auditory signals in the inner ear and send the signals to the brain, where they’re interpreted as sounds. Luckily for most people, the NIHL they suffer after a single exposure to loud music is not permanent, and disappears after a day or so. But recurring exposure to very loud sounds can cause the damage to become permanent and lead to ringing in the ears that never goes away or in a major loss of hearing.
A pair of factors determine how much harm is done to hearing by contact with very loud sounds – how loud the noises are, and the amount of time you are in contact with them. The volume of sound is measured in decibels, a scale that is somewhat illusory because it’s logarithmic, meaning that each increase of ten on the scale means that the noise is two times as loud. So the noise of noisy city traffic (85 decibels) is not just a little louder than the sound of normal speech (65 decibels), it’s four times louder. The decibel rating at ordinary rock concerts is 115, which means these noise levels are 10 times louder than normal speech. In addition to precisely how loud the music is, the second factor that impacts how much damage is done is how long you are exposed to it, the permissible exposure time. Hearing loss may occur from coming in contact with noise at 85 decibels after only 8 hours. In contrast, the permissible exposure time that you can be exposed to music at 115 decibels without risking hearing loss is less than one minute. Coupled with the fact that the noise level at some rock concerts has been measured at over 140 decibels, and you have a potentially dangerous predicament.
Estimates from audiologists claim that by 2050 as many as 50 million people will have suffered hearing loss resulting from exposure to very loud music. Bearing this in mind, several live concert promoters and music venues have begun supplying sound-baffling earplugs to attendees for a small charge. One famous UK rock band even worked with an earplug producer to offer them free to people attending its live shows. Some concertgoers have reported seeing signs in the auditoriums that say, “Earplugs are sexy.” In all honesty, sporting earplugs at a concert may not really be all that sexy, but if they safeguard your hearing it might be worth considering.
Any of us can help to provide you with a pair. If a noisy rock and roll concert is in your future, we strongly suggest that you think about donning a good pair.