Information for musicians
Last updated on 13 April 2011
by Eddy Temple-Morris, BTA Ambassador, DJ, Producer and Presenter
Music and tinnitus have been unhappy bedfellows ever since the first time music was amplified, and the number of people suffering will increase and keep on increasing, while our ears get battered more and more by mp3 players, mobile phones, and speakers in our daily lives.
Never has there been a need for more research, so we can deeper understand the condition and therefore get closer to finding a cure. We will continue to work on some amazing ideas to raise awareness and funds for the BTA as we consider that continually communicating, and offering useful information, is vital if we are to improve understanding and help those with tinnitus to live with the condition, if it can’t be made better.
There are some useful links below, and it's worth adding that I can personally vouch for the advice given regarding musician's earplugs. My tinnitus has improved since I started wearing them, so I'd recommend them to anyone who's exposed to loud music as a way of life.
With very best wishes,
Because of loud sound levels and frequent exposure to noise, musicians can develop hearing problems such as tinnitus and hearing loss. The advice which is given is sometimes along the following lines: "Give up your career or interest and find something quieter to do" or "Just keep playing and don't let the tinnitus affect your life", neither of which are particularly helpful.
However, it is usually possible to strike a balance between these two views. You can continue with your music by using the right kind of hearing protection, which reduces the sound levels to which you are exposed without unduly affecting your listening sound quality. Many musicians have taken this option, and it seems to be a sensible, practical way of dealing with the problem.
Musicians should protect their hearing whilst playing. There are various reasons for this – for example, the risk of hearing damage, temporary post-exposure tinnitus and loudness discomfort.
If you are an employed musician, the Control of Noise at Work Regulations (2005), which implemented the EU Physical Agents Directive (Noise) in UK, made employers responsible for the assessment, management and reduction of noise in the workplace, including the provision, where appropriate, of suitable hearing protection. The music and entertainment industry was allowed a three-year period before the Regulations became effective in 2008.
So any “employed” musician should now have access to advice, suitable hearing protection and/or other forms of noise reduction. But self-employed and amateur musicians also need help and advice!
Risk to hearing and noise reduction
The risk to hearing from noise at work is dependent on the sound intensity (acoustic power). The safe exposure limit is calculated from a combination of exposure time and sound intensity. Reducing the noise level by only three decibels would allow a doubling of the exposure time, but this is not really feasible for performances as controlling playing time is not really a very effective way of managing a musician’s noise exposure.
Noise Intensity Maximum Unprotected Exposure
Reducing the level of sound reaching the musician’s ear, whilst still providing a realistic listening environment, is the best way forward for most people. A suitably chosen and correctly fitted “flat attenuation” earplug can be an effective solution, maintaining musical fidelity. In some cases, screens and sound absorbing surfaces can also play a part in managing noise exposure.
Some people will develop permanent noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) at moderate occupational noise levels while others will not. Susceptibility to NIHL is not generally related to hearing acuity, so it is not possible to say whether an individual is at risk just by taking a hearing test. Saying “I have tough ears” is not a sensible approach to protecting your long-term hearing! And if you have NIHL, don’t say “It’s too late for me”, it’s all the more important to protect your ears from even more damage and to try to avoid the onset of tinnitus.
Musicians’ hearing protectors
A wide range of technical ear protection products are available. Effective ear plugs will reduce the overall level of sound while maintaining an even balance across the sound spectrum. This means that you can still hear everything clearly, although the overall sound level is reduced. The greater the number of decibels (dBs) of attenuation by the ear plugs, the better overall protection they offer. While there are a number of generic musicians’ earplugs available which are aimed at musicians, customised earplugs may provide a higher level of protection as well as better fidelity of sound. They tend to be more expensive than devices sold to the general public, but should be looked upon as an investment. A decent amplifier or instrument can cost a considerable amount, so spending a smaller sum protecting your hearing, without impeding your playing too much, seems a reasonable outlay.
A number of companies manufacture specialist hearing protectors and in-the-ear monitors for musicians. Essentially, musicians’ earplugs are either based upon an earplug incorporating a “tuned” mechanical filter set to provide a flat frequency response and some reduction in intensity, or a fusion of hearing protection and digital hearing aid technology. In the latter devices, the sound level at the ear may be controlled by a level-dependent amplifier and the frequency response of the system can be tailored to suit the wearer’s audiogram. These ear plugs may also be used by members of the general public, who wish to reduce sound levels to which they are exposed without having muffled or distorted hearing.
If you wish to find out more about musicians ear plugs the best option is to discuss your requirements with a qualified audiologist.
Other sources of noise
As the impact of noise or loud levels of sound on the ear is accumulative, do not forget that there are a variety of other sources of noise or loud sounds that may need to be taken into account when considering the level of noise to which you are exposed. Those who shoot or use motor cycles, power tools or other devices that produce loud levels of sound should protect their ears when doing so. These different types of sound exposure all require different types of protection. For example, musicians ear plugs are not suitable for someone who wishes to use a shotgun. Again, if you have any doubts, please consult an audiologist.
The BTA produce a large range of leaflets. Publications which may be especially helpful are Noise and the Ear and Suppliers and Contacts. These can be obtained by calling 0114 250 9922, emailing email@example.com or visiting our website www.tinnitus.org.uk
We also have a confidential helpline on 0800 018 0527.
The RNID hosts a website aimed specifically at musicians, DJs, clubbers and concert-goers: www.dontlosethemusic.com/home
A good source of information for musicians is the US charity HEAR (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers). Their advice is helpful for all musicians, not only rockers: www.hearnet.com
More information and a comprehensive guide are available from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website: www.hse.gov.uk/noise/musicsound.htm
The HSE also have a number of leaflets and more comprehensive guides to download:
Mythbuster: Noise in music and entertainment sectors www.hse.gov.uk/noise/mythaug07.pdf
Sound advice: Control of noise at work in music and entertainment www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/books/hsg260.htm
The Sound Advice website from the HSE is well presented with many practical tips for musicians of all kinds, and for venues too: www.soundadvice.info/
Dr Peter Wheeler, CEng HonFIOA
Reviewed October 2010
© British Tinnitus Association
Musicians should protect their hearing whilst playing.
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