In addition to all of them being musicians, what do Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Ludwig van Beethoven and Jeff Beck have in common? As a result of years of performing, they all have permanent hearing loss. When I treat musicians, I have to tell them a sad but unavoidable fact of life – the very music they love to play may be damaging their hearing. When a musician is exposed to loud music they can suffer from noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) which produces ringing in the ears, sometimes referred to as tinnitus. With similar ongoing exposure permanent hearing loss can result.
The hearing loss can happen to any musician, whether they play in a rock band, in a symphony orchestra, in a chamber music group, or just play at home when rehearsing. Hearing loss can occur when exposed to any sound over 85 decibels (dB) in volume for prolonged lengths of time. If you play an electric guitar onstage, that instrument produces 120dB, but if you play an unamplified violin, it can produce 103dB, and thus cause just as much potential hearing loss. In fact, audiologists researching hearing loss in musicians have found that overexposure to sound while rehearsing adds up to more hours than they spend on stage performing.
Musicians can take steps to protect their hearing despite this unavoidable exposure to sound that exceeds acceptable levels, even in seemingly quiet rehearsal settings. When investing in high-quality ear protection beyond what can be had from drug-store Styrofoam ear plugs, performers can trust their hearing is protected. Such earplugs were invented over 20 years ago by a company called Etymotic Research, and their design is still used by most of the manufacturers of specialized earplugs for musicians. What makes them better than the cheap foam earplugs is that they allow you to hear music and speech accurately, at all frequencies, just at lowered volumes.
Stores that sell musical instruments and supplies carry what are called universal-fit earplugs for about $15 per pair. But for the musicians I see – whether they play professionally or just for fun – I recommend custom-molded musicians earplugs with Etymotic filters, because of the greater protection they provide. These will be more comfortable to wear for long periods of time, more effective at blocking undesirable levels of noise while allowing you to hear the music properly, and easier to clean and care for. When it comes to protecting your hearing from permanent damage it is well worth the added expense so you can enjoy performing your music for years to come.