Did you know that the level of sound created by a symphony orchestra can reach up to 137 dB?[i] That’s almost as high as the 140 dB generated by a jet engine 100 feet away![ii] Frequent or continuous exposure to an orchestra playing at this volume can actually lead to hearing loss. Even people who spend a prolonged amount of time individually practicing an instrument put their hearing at risk, since many instruments, including the piano, violin, flute, timpani, and French horn, can produce sounds within or above the 90-95 dB range, where “regular sustained exposure can cause permanent damage.”[iii] Considering these facts, it’s no wonder that compared to other adults, professional musicians experience higher rates of hearing loss and tinnitus, or ringing in the ears.[iv]
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) occurs when the inner ear’s nerve receptors, or hair cells, deteriorate and die. When sound waves enter the ear and reach the hair cells, these cells bend to help create an electrical impulse that travels to the auditory nerve and ultimately, the brain. Hair cells sustain damage when exposed to sounds that are “too loud, too close, or last too long.”[v] Since the human body cannot regenerate hair cells, prolonged exposure to excessive noise, whether pleasant or unpleasant, can lead to permanent NIHL, which often starts with problems hearing high frequency tones.
No matter how long the period of exposure, sounds under 75 dB generally will not harm hair cells, but louder sounds can cause damage over time. As noise increases in volume, advisable exposure time decreases. For instance, according to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and CDC guidelines, an individual can safely listen to two uninterrupted hours of sound at a volume of 88 dB, but at 94 dB this shrinks to one hour, at 100 dB it becomes 15 minutes, and at 115 dB it dwindles to approximately 28 seconds.[vi]
Luckily, if you’re a musician frequently producing and listening to dangerous levels of sound, you can take some precautions to protect your hearing. For example, you can practice in a way that avoids overtaxing your ears by taking care to not play any louder than necessary, switching between loud and soft pieces during sessions, and minimizing noise during regular breaks. In addition, you can monitor your exposure to noise outside of musical activities and listen to music on electronic devices at relatively low volumes.
Many websites, publications, and books have additional guidelines for the prevention of hearing damage. They cover topics like room acoustics, ensemble layouts, and earplugs. Five especially helpful resources are:
Do you have any other resources that you’d like to share? Would you like to tell us some tips that have helped you preserve your hearing? Leave a comment below so that we can learn from your experiences and work together to keep our hearing sharp!
[i] “Decibel Trivia.” Hearnet. H.E.A.R. Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers, 2013. Web. 9 Sept. 2014.
[iv] Aleccia, Jonel. “Turn It Up? Musicians Run Far Higher Risk of Hearing Loss.” NBC News. National Broadcasting Company, 30 Apr. 2014. Web. 9 Sept. 2014.
[v] “Noise-Induced Hearing Loss.” National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. National Institutes of Health, Mar. 2014. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.
[vi] Horvath, Janet. Playing (less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians. 2009 ed. Eau Claire: Documentation LLC, 2009. Print.