Clubbed to Deaf: Is Music Killing Your Ears?
Clubbed to Deaf: Is Music Killing Your Ears?

Anybody at any age that’s exposing themselves to loud sounds definitely should be wearing some kind of protection.

The feeling of being inundated with sound is one of the biggest attractions of attending a music event. Getting as close to the source as possible and feeling your body vibrate to the bass is great—except that for those few hours of euphoric aural pleasure, your ears could be paying for a lifetime. The sporadic, dull ringing you hear in your ears after a particularly noisy evening, you put in the back of your mind and go to sleep hoping it will be gone in the morning, and it generally is. On occasion you may experience some pain in the ears, but that goes away relatively quickly. Most of us consider ourselves to have pretty normal hearing. And the majority of us will not have our hearing checked by a specialist. But the bleak reality is, if you are frequenting places that are playing music at high volumes, you are hurting your hearing and the damage is irreparable.

The primary factors about music that affect hearing are its volume and its duration. When you expose yourself to loud music for too long, the tiny hair cells that line your inner ear (arranged from high to low frequencies), which are essential to hearing, get knocked down (temporary), or knocked off (permanent).

“Once you’re out of the noise, the hearing damage doesn’t get worse,” the late Dr. Howard House, the leader in hearing restoration surgeries and founder of the House Clinic, has said. “The noise damage occurs at the moment, but you could damage it more each time.”

“Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS) is when you lose a little bit of hearing, then it comes back,” says clinical audiologist Matt Michaels of Arcade Hearing Aid Center. “Your hair cells get knocked down and it takes a while for them to come back up. The thing is, they can only take getting knocked down so many times.”

The bassPOD at EDC Las Vegas 2015
The bassPOD at EDC Las Vegas 2015

The most common result of exposure to loud music is tinnitus, defined by American Tinnitus Association as “the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present.” This could sound like ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing, clicking and is a symptom, not a disease in itself. Basically, it is the brain telling the ear it wants more information from those damaged frequencies in the ear and the ear responding my emitting those sounds. At the present time there is no antidote for tinnitus.

“When I got [tinnitus] really bad I couldn’t hear anything but [ringing] for about six months,” says drum & bass don Optical who developed tinnitus during the creation of his 2000 album The Creeps with Ed Rush, who also developed tinnitus. “It was incredibly annoying, like having an alarm bell ringing. You get to a point of acceptance. The secret to getting over it is to have your brain tune it out then your subconscious is not looking for it.”

“You deal with it or it drives you crazy,” says London Elektricity’s Tony Coleman, another tinnitus sufferer. “I wear aids in my left ear. I have one from ReSound that comes with an iPhone app to control highs and lows and it remembers your settings for certain locations like restaurants.”

If you think you don’t have any symptoms and therefore no damage, play with Center For Disease Control and Prevention’s Noise Meter, which gives auditory examples for different decibel levels, or dBs, the unit used to measure the intensity of sound. To put decibel levels in perspective, Jeremy Bridge, president and CEO of PK Sound, whose Trinity system was launched at the EDC bassPOD this past summer, explains it in his own blog post on the topic. In a nutshell, when you’re sticking your head in the bassbin where the noise level is 140 dBs, you are 55 dBs over the maximum level where hearing loss starts.

“The key for sound systems not to hurt your ears is to first design the sound system to provide as even coverage to the crowd as possible,” says PK Sound’s Bridge. “Then it’s just as important for the sound engineer running the system to be conscious of what is happening across the crowd not just at front of house. This means taking a walk into the crowd every once and a while and knowing the effect of the changes you are making to the system across the whole audience. It’s the responsibility of the front of house tech to give the audience the intensity they want without piercing high frequencies or pushing the system into distortion which creates unwanted noise and stress on your ears.”

With the human ear having a narrow range of frequencies, any of those being over-amplified results in damage. Turning down those frequencies can help control this. Most venues cannot or will not turn down those frequencies. The next best thing is custom-made earplugs called Musician’s Earplugs. Developed by Etymotic Research, these plugs attenuate (or reduce) the frequencies on a flat level so you hear a true reproduction of the music, only softer. With traditional earplugs (the foamy ones or the silicone ones), what you tend to hear is a roll-off in high pitches, cutting down on the quality of what you’re hearing. Although better than no earplugs at all, traditional ones don’t give you what you’re looking for from the musical experience.

Available in ER-9, ER-15 (most common), and ER-25 (ER are the initials of the company holding the patent, the number refers to attenuation levels in decibels), Musician’s Earplugs are washable and reusable indefinitely. Any hearing aid specialist can quickly and painlessly fit you for a pair. And they run about $150. Before you say you can’t afford that, can you afford to damage your hearing permanently? As Arcade’s Michaels says, “Anybody at any age that’s exposing themselves to loud sounds definitely should be wearing some kind of protection.”

It's the responsibility of the front of house tech to give the audience the intensity they want without pushing the system into distortion [and creating] unwanted noise and stress on your ears.

An alternate option to custom-made earplugs is the more affordable high-fidelity ones that also deliver flat attenuation, but are not molded to your ears. Also washable and reusable, these earplugs range from $13 a pair to $90 a pair depending on type of use. Made by a number of different manufacturers, you can pick a set up at music gear retail locations such as Guitar Center, or directly from the manufacturers’ websites. Rule of thumb: if there is more than one pair in the package, that’s not the quality of earplug you’re looking for, but it is better than no protection.

But don’t just take our word for it: Bassnectar is a proactive, vocal advocate of using earplugs and as a result has teamed up with the non-profit organization We’re hEAR For You to distribute free earplugs at his shows. He is a faithful wearer of earplugs citing the foam ones with a 33 dB cut as his choice on a Facebook post on his fan page. This infographic, shared on the same post by Bassnectar from the Earplug Superstore, gathers all the information and solutions you need to make an informed decision about protecting your hearing while still being able to enjoy the music in the future.