Why are Audiologists Afraid of Musicians? Part 1

Actually audiologists are macho and not afraid of anything.  They wear super-audiologist capes when not in the office and fly around unaided like Superman.  (Audiologists do not wear their capes in the office since they may snag on expensive pieces of equipment or trip up clients who inadvertently step on them).  Audiologists are not afraid of anything or anyone…. except musicians (and engineers, and lawyers, jello, and…)

Why would a macho audiologist be afraid of a musician?  There are many reasons for this – jargon, clinical orientation, extreme requirements of a musician, because musicians are inherently scary people…

The one thing that is not on this list, however, is “lack of training”.

Audiologists study acoustics and electroacoustics.  Audiologists name a frequency as 440 Hz; musicians call it A (but not just any A – it’s the A with the fundamental near the middle of the treble clef).  Audiologists say that something is 90 dBA; musicians call this mezzo-forte, or for those who do not like to speak Italian (except at restaurants), mf.  Audiologists like to talk about pure tones; musicians like to talk about a rich harmonic structure.

In short, Audiologists and musicians speak a different language.  But they are talking about the same thing.  Audiologists learn all about harmonic distortion.  Musicians call these same things overtones.

The next few blogs will deal with making Audiologists less afraid of musicians.  Audiologists have all the training they need (and more), but possibly they need to have a different orientation.

I give a number of talks about musicians and the prevention of hearing loss and I usually preface the talks with a statement such as “today you will not learn anything new”. This causes some to stand up and leave the room, but being a super audiologist, I fly over and block their path.  Indeed, by the end of the talk, the participants whom I have been able to bully into staying have a better understanding of things that they already know.  Audiology training is quite thorough, but it would be nice to have audiology students re-think much of what they have been taught, with a different orientation or perspective in mind.

The number one area of “mismatch” between the audiologist and the musician is jargon.  Let’s start with frequency.

Audiologists talk about frequency in terms of Hz, broad band, narrow band, high frequency, low frequency, and everything in between.  Musicians just say “A” (and if they are Canadian musicians, they will say “eh”).  If they really want to be technical, they may say A (440).  This is just a short hand for what audiologists would say.  Musicians mean that the fundamental energy is at 440 Hz (or an octave or so below (220 Hz, 110 Hz) or an octave or so above (880 Hz, 1760 Hz).

Knowing their instrument is a one half wavelength resonator (for example), their violin would play the fundamental at 440 Hz, and then have harmonic (or overtone) energy at even-numbered (two times) multiples of 440 Hz- just like our vocal chords function as a one-half wavelength resonator.  Musicians may have studied the properties of their own instrument but Audiologists would have studied some speech sciences along the way- our vocal chords function similarly to stringed instruments (and some woodwinds- oboe, bassoon, and saxophone).

Brass and clarinet musicians play one-quarter wavelength resonator instruments where each harmonic is (three times or) odd-numbered times the fundamental.  If a trumpet player plays A (440), then the first harmonic would be at 3 x 440 Hz = 1320 Hz.  Sounds a lot like the first (third and fifth) resonant peaks of behind-the-ear hearing aids, doesn’t it?  Behind-the-ear hearing aids are quarter-wavelength resonators, much like our brass instruments.  And, like our brass instruments that have a flare in their bell, those audiologists who work with hearing aids know about flared bores or Libby horns.

The jargon is different, but the technology is the same.  And audiologists have a much better understanding of the technologies- their speech sciences instructor perhaps should have given them an example using a violin or guitar, and perhaps their hearing aid acoustics instructor should have pointed out that the 1000-Hz resonance in a behind-the-ear hearing aid functions just like brass instruments do.

Understanding the two languages involved- musician and audiologist- should be one factor at getting over audiologists’ fear of working with musicians.

Next week’s blog will cover some other areas of commonality between audiologists and musicians, such as sound level – I mean, loudness…I think…

About Marshall Chasin

Marshall Chasin, AuD, is a clinical and research audiologist who has a special interest in the prevention of hearing loss for musicians, as well as the treatment of those who have hearing loss. I have other special interests such as clarinet and karate, but those may come out in the blog over time.

4 Comments

  1. Hey Scott! Nice to see another musician/audiologist here!
    One of the things I advertise in my clinics is my experience with sound, specifically because I AM a musician, sound engineer AND audiologist. It has certainly broadened my client base and my confidence level. My clients also seem to have more confidence when they see that my credentials have a solid grounding in sound.
    As always Marshall, great read 🙂

  2. I agree…as a musician, singer and Audiologist, I see most Audiologists have no clue what to do with them. One Worship Pastor called around Tulsa to find In Ear monitors. First place he was told that he needed to turn down the music. Second place he challenged them when they gave the same response until the Audiologist got on the phone and listened to him but then replied with the same answer. He called my place and my wife, who knows little about them and was filling in at the office, told him we knew about them. I have a thriving biz but In Ear Monitors are important for Worship Pastors in churches that have the dueling banjo concept on stage knocking out the attendees ability to stand the music. In Ears protect hearing and control the music.

    1. Thanks Scott. The idea behind that blog (and the several that will follow) is that audiologists are probably the best trained professionals to work with musicians, but for some reason, audiologists don’t always recognize their own strengths.

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