Commonly Asked Questions from Musician’s Clinics – 2

Marshall Chasin
May 5, 2020

Over the next months, I will be uploading some commonly viewed FAQs from This is the website of the Musicians’ Clinics of Canada, and was completely updated over the last Christmas holidays. I should have entitled it “What I did over the Christmas holidays”! A full range of FAQs will eventually cover pretty much everything we know about music and the prevention of hearing loss.

Feel free to submit other questions that can be answered in 4-5 sentences and I may include them in future posts…

How did you calculate the sound level of musical instruments?

This is a commonly asked question. In the clinic I use a specially designed sound level meter that can be placed in the ear canal or in the vicinity of the musician. In popular media frequently stated are “peak” or maximum values. These may sound “news worthy” but tend to be alarmist. The “average” values may be quite different. There are a number of apps available on Smartphones which can provide estimates in the environment of average sound levels. As a rule of thumb iPhones (iOS platform) tend to provide more accurate information than Android based Smartphones since one cannot disable the “compression” software on the Android platform. This can reduce the actual measured sound level. Also, if one uses a Smartphone app as a sound level meter ensure that the microphone of the Smartphone is aimed at the music source- Smartphones are highly “directional”. Go to the “Publications” section of this website for exact information for each instrument.

I really want an MP3 player but my dad says it’s bad for my hearing.

Fathers are always right (I have three kids) but when it comes to MP3 players, there is nothing wrong with them as long as you follow the 80/90 rule. The 80/90 rule says that it is safe to listen to your MP3 player for 90 minutes each day at 80% volume, and this will give you half of your daily dose of music exposure. If your favourite song comes on, turn up the volume, but remember to turn it back down to a more moderate level after. This will still allow you to mow the lawn.

Can headphones damage hearing?

Headphones are no more damaging than listening to music from a loudspeaker. One will always adjust the volume to a comfortable listening level, and the ear doesn’t know whether the music is coming from headphones or a loudspeaker. The potential danger is in “portable music” where headphones are used in conjunction with MP3 players. Listening to music in a noisy environment can be damaging since one tends to turn up the volume over the background noise.

I listen to my MP3 player at about half volume. Is this level OK?

Well, let’s find out. We know that MP3 players generate about 85 decibels at about 1/3 volume control. Many yield about 95 decibels at half volume. Let’s do some math- 85 dB for 40 hours, is the same as 88 dB for 20 hours, which is the same as 91 dB for 10 hours, and this is the same as 94 dB for 5 hours each week. Therefore you can listen to your MP3 player safely at one half volume for about 5 hours each week.

So it seems that I can use an MP3 player…. But not for too long?

Yes, it’s actually the “dose” of noise or music exposure that we should be concerned about. This is similar to an X-ray technician being exposed to many x-rays each day- there will come a time when this person needs to take a forced-vacation away from the x-rays. Music is like this as well. There is nothing wrong with going to a rock concert, as long as it is not too long (and you don’t go home and mow your lawn the next morning). There are app-based dosimeters that can provide exact numbers with statements such as “You can be exposed safely for X minutes”. One such dosimeter that I use is called SoundLog, and to date, because of limitations with the Android platform, all Smartphone based dosimeters are only available on the Apple iOS platform.

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