Over the next months, I will be uploading some commonly viewed FAQs from MusiciansClinics.com. 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…
So what are the factors affecting hearing loss?
The two main factors are how intense the music or noise is, and how long one has been exposed to it. We know from research that prolonged exposure to 85 decibels (dB) or greater, over time will cause a permanent hearing loss. A level of 85 dB is not particularly loud- a dial tone on a telephone is about that! Even though it is not loud, it is intense enough to be damaging. But, it also depends on how long you are exposed to it. Research has found that the maximum exposure each week should be less than 85 dB for 40 hours. This is identical to 88 dB for only 20 hours. That is, for each increase of 3 decibels, you can only be exposed for half as long. Saying it differently, for every 3 decibel increase, your exposure doubles. Other less significant factors are your hating of the music, general health, and hereditary factors.
What happens when we get a music related hearing loss?
Most people reach the ripe old age of 50 without any hearing problems, but others suffer a very slow and gradual hearing loss that may not be noticed for years. Certainly working in a noisy factory is one such cause. And listening to loud music is another. The ear is made up of three parts- the outer ear, the middle ear, and you guessed it, the inner ear. The inner ear is about the size of a small finger nail and contains about 15,000 nerve endings, called hair cells. When some of these hair cells are damaged, you have a permanent hearing loss. Damage to the outer and middle ears is usually temporary and can be treated by a doctor.
I play tenor sax in a loud band and wear ER-25 earplugs. Is the internal sound of myself playing loud potentially damaging?
This is a common concern for sax and clarinet players- instruments where the top teeth touch the mouthpiece. Sound can be generated from the instrument, through the teeth and by way of bone conduction, go directly to the ear. There are no studies that I know of about the exact sound level, but indirect evidence suggests that the sound can be quite intense. One can minimize the potential effect by ensuring that the earplug does not “trap” the sound in the ear. This is called the occlusion effect. As a sax player, unless the band is VERY loud, you should not be wearing an ER-25. At most, the ER-15 would be sufficient. I’m a clarinet player and I use the vented/tuned earplugs. These use a small hole that would let the bone conducted sound escape from the “trapped” ear.
Do you have any specific information or suggestions for bagpipers?
Bagpipes are a fascinating instrument- the only “modern” instrument with no volume control! The output of bagpipes has been measured at 108 dB, and combine that with the drum corps to their rear and you can have a real problem. The hearing protection of choice is the ER-15 earplug if the piper is solo and the ER-25 earplug if drums are around. Of course, the same precautions/moderation should be taken as other woodwinds. You can check out the “Woodwind” fact sheet in the “Publications” section of this website for more information.