Brian Wilson, Neil Young, Pete Townshend and Barbra Streisand – what trait do these diverse musicians all share? As a result of years of performing, they all have permanent hearing loss. When I treat musicians, I have to tell them a sad but unavoidable fact of life – the very music they love to play may be damaging 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.
Not just big-name stadium rock stars are susceptible, all musicians are at risk. Players of all genres from classical, to club and small venues, even while rehearsing at home a musician can cross the threshold to overexposure resulting in NIHL. 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. Estimates by audiologists say that more damage is done to musicians’ hearing during the hours they practice or rehearse than in the short periods they spend performing, onstage.
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. Manufactures of ear protection today still use the original and proven design first invented by Etymotic Research over 20 years ago. What makes them better than the cheap foam earplugs is that they allow you to hear music and speech accurately, at all frequencies, just at lowered volumes.
Universal-fit musicians earplugs, starting at about $15 a pair, can be found at most stores that sell musical instruments. 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. Comfortable even with extended wear for long periods of time, custom-molded earplugs block undesirable sound allowing the music to come through undistorted and without damaging hearing. They are also more expensive than the universal-fit earplugs, but when you consider that hearing damage is irreversible, the investment is more than worth it.