Hearing Loss Prevention for Musicians – ear plugs, humming and moderation- Infomation sheet- part 6

Marshall Chasin
January 3, 2012

This is the final installment of the 6 fact sheets that can be copied onto your office letterhead and provided to musicians.  There have been ones that relate to each musician instrument, and this one is obviously (as can be seen in the title) a general information sheet about hearing loss prevention.  These are used in the Musicians’ Clinics of Canada (www.musiciansclinics.com) and I would appreciate citing the source of this information if you choose to use them as one of your clinic handouts.  Like all information sheets this, and those that have preceded it, can be used as part of the counseling session.

Hearing loss is a gradual process that may not be noticed for years. And when it does happen, people generally notice that speech is mumbled and unclear. People may report a ringing (or tinnitus) in their ears. By that time, it may be too late. Prevention of hearing loss is where it’s at!

There are many sources of noise in the music industry- explosions, loud cymbal crashes, feedback from speakers, and the routine noise and music of a busy life. Yet, even quiet noises, if one listens to them long enough, can damage one’s hearing. A dial tone on a telephone, if listened to long enough, can cause a permanent hearing loss. It’s not just rock music- it can be your Walkman, or even a symphony! A permanent hearing loss can be the result of a single loud blast, but more often it is the result of years of exposure to sounds that one would not normally think of as damaging.

Conventional hearing protection has historically not been well received by those in the performing arts and by music listeners. This form of “foam” plug usually causes the wearer to hear speech as if was muffled and unclear. In addition, frequently one’s own voice sounds hollow and echoey. For the last decade a special type of “tuned” earplug has been available through the Musicians’ Clinics of Canada- a clinic dedicated to the health of those in the performing arts. This tuned earplug is called the ER-15 earplug and treats all sound identically- the low bass notes, the mid-range, and the higher treble notes are all lessened or attenuated by the same 15 decibels. With this earplug, speech is clear and there is significant reduction of the potential for hearing loss from loud sounds. People who wear the ER-15 frequently forget that they are actually wearing ear protection.

Another strategy is to hum while you work. Humans (and all other mammals) have a small muscle in their middle ears that contract upon loud sounds. From an evolutionary perspective, we have such a muscle so that our own voice would not be too loud for us. When this muscle (called the stapedius muscle) contracts, it pulls on the chain of bones in the ear that conduct sounds, making them less efficient as conductors. Sound from the environment therefore cannot get through to our ears as readily, thus providing us with significant protection. If you know that a loud sound or blast is about to occur, start humming before the blast and continue until the blast is finished. Drummers have known this for years without being told.

Finally, permanent hearing loss starts as a series of temporary hearing losses. When you come out of a rock concert or other loud venue, your hearing may temporarily be decreased. You might notice this as a muffled feeling and may notice ringing or tinnitus. This temporary hearing loss resolves after about 16-18 hours. Eventually it may become permanent. The strategy would therefore involve moderation. If you see a loud rock group on Friday night, don’t mow your lawn on Saturday. Wait until Sunday, or better still get someone else to do it!

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