Let me begin with a painful confession: I abused my ears in my youth. I played keyboards in a rock band that performed on crowded stages with stacks of Marshall guitar amps screaming behind me and stage monitors blasting me from the front. The fact that my acupuncturist could take away the persistent ringing in my ears gave me false confidence that my hearing loss and tinnitus were temporary and curable. When I outgrew the touring life I began scoring films (along with teaching piano) and had to compose late at night using headphones so as not to wake my family and neighbors. But another confession: I like it loud. Listening to my mock orchestral scores in headphones at high volume was a euphoric pleasure I indulged in far too often. After scoring my second movie I took my ringing ears to my acupuncturist and was horrified to discover that his treatments no longer worked. I launched into desperate experimentation with Chinese herbs, nutritional supplements, body work and foods that were rumored to improve auditory function. But nothing cured the ringing or hearing loss. I would lose big chunks of conversation if I was not staring at the speaker’s lips. There was nothing else for me to do but invest in a good pair of hearing aids; hearing aids are extremely helpful, but not a fix by any means. Listening to music will never be the same, and I still have a lot of trouble understanding women’s and children’s words.
More than ever, hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is a huge problem in America for musicians and non musicians alike. According to the National Institute On Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) one in eight Americans 12 years and older have hearing loss in both ears. The New York Times reports that though hearing problems can be age-related or due to genetic factors, medications, ear wax and illnesses, most hearing problems are noise-induced. Noise-induced hearing loss can result from one loud noise such as a gun shot or explosion near your ear. Or it can be from prolonged exposure to noise such as street traffic, subway trains, sirens, jets, motorcycles, or unfortunately, loud music.
We love listening to loud music with ear buds or headphones, but music above 85 decibels can cause damage in just 15 minutes according to Dr. Michael D. Seidman, author of the book, Save Your Hearing Now. I tell my students to set a comfortable volume for headphones, ear buds, or speakers, then turn it a few notches down. Always listen at levels softer than you would like. And give your ears a rest after 30 minutes of listening, even at lower levels.
If you listen to music with headphones on flights, at the gym, or while walking in the city, it would be worth your while to invest in a pair of good noise-canceling headphones such as the Bose Quiet Comfort series (I have the QC15 over-the-ear). Noise-canceling headphones reduce background noise so that you can listen to your music at lower volumes. If you are listening with noise canceling headphones on quiet streets or hikes but find that you can’t hear your music when you move to a busy street, instead of turning up the volume, pause the music until you’re in a quieter place again.
I hate to say it, but concerts can be hazardous to your hearing health! Hear Forever reports that symphonic concerts can range upwards from 90 decibels advising that musicians should wear ear plugs while performing. And listeners should wear ear plugs, too, especially if they are sitting near the brass section, or in front of speakers. I never leave home without ear plugs. Rock concerts in stadiums or small clubs are even louder.
Responsible musicians wear ear plugs while they play, and so should their fans. Yes, ear plugs muffle the sound, but they protect your ears, so get over it and wear them! And make sure your kids wear them too! Ask yourself if listening to loud music is really worth a lifetime of ringing in your ears, and having to say, “WHAT?” whenever anyone speaks to you. Not being able to be part of a conversation makes you feel isolated and embarrassed. Believe me, I know.
You can buy inexpensive but effective ear plugs at any drug store, or google “custom molded ear plugs” or “musicians ear plugs” if you want to try something more comfortable or less muting than the over-the-counter offerings.
Here are some other decibel levels provided by the Hearing Health Foundation:
- Firecracker/gun shot 140-160 dB
- Jet take-off 140 dB
- Ambulance siren, thunderclap 120dB
- Jack hammer, concerts 110 dB
- MP3 players at maximum volume 105dB
- Subway platform 95dB
- Heavy traffic, school cafeteria 85dB
- Dishwasher 75dB
- Vacuum, hair dryer 70dB (but many blow dryers are louder than that!)
- Normal conversation 60dB
- Whisper 30dB
More suggestions for avoiding noise-induced hearing loss:
- Don’t be embarrassed about putting your hands over your ears as a subway train or siren passes you by.
- Remember to turn on your device before putting on your headphones, in case the music is too loud.
- If you use a blow dryer frequently or for more than a few minutes, wear ear plugs.
- Wear ear plugs when in an elementary school cafeteria or auditorium.
- Wear ear plugs when operating loud equipment such as lawn mowers, blowers, chain saws, and even vacuum cleaners.
- Keep ear plugs with you at all times.
It’s too late for me- I can’t undue the damage I did to my ears in my ignorance. But I hope that my post will encourage you take action to protect your own ears. Hearing aids are EXPENSIVE (they cost thousands); they make speech sound tinny (even the best ones), and music sound out-of-tune (even with good music settings); though they are extremely helpful, I wouldn’t suggest thinking of hearing aids as a back-up plan when deciding whether or not to wear ear plugs in a loud situation.
Protecting your hearing is a vital part of living a healthy, happy life.
To read a scientific study about listening to loud music, click here.
I welcome your comments! With love and music, Gaili Schoen
Author, Upper Hands Piano: A Method for Adults 50+ to SPARK the Mind, Heart, and Soul
17 Replies to “WHAT??? 12 Ways To Protect Your Ears Against Noise-Induced Hearing Loss”
very interesting and sad to hear of your personal experience , as a born again motorcyclist i always wear custom moulded plugs when riding but had not thought to use them at concerts and when mowing the lawn etc.. good advice preserve the hearing i have as long as possible!
Yes! I’m thrilled to hear that you’ll consider wearing ear plugs at concerts as well as when you ride. Our hearing is so fragile, and sometimes we just don’t understand that until it’s too late. Thanks for your comment Andy
This is a pet subject of mine. Being a life-long musician, my “noise” experience echoes yours. I began having my hearing checked years ago, and I do have a mild hi-frequency loss. Hard to believe I have survived with only this when in my younger days (like you) I played in bands whose volume levels would drown out a 747 on takeoff. The most hopeful and comforting thing an audiologist told me was that my loss was very common among people who had typically “noisy” hobbies and interests, i.e. shooting ranges, power tools, etc. It’s not just rock music that is causing this, and in a way a slight hearing loss is the price one pays for these pursuits. In my case, however, I do not believe it was NOT live performance that was to blame, as was when I got into home recording. I would often work on recording and mix-downs using headphones, and because the music was my own creation, I would listen endlessly at way-over-the-top- volumes. I would very often enhance the experience with a few beers, and before long I became numb to the destructive volume levels (I believe Pete Townsend has cited this very cause, earphones and alcohol, as the major reason for his hearing loss). Anyway, now that we’re older and smarter (yeah, right) hopefully we can preserve what’s left of our hearing with more mature (yeah, right) habits. Rock on (sensibly).
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. Yes Pete Townsend highlighted the dangers of using those seemingly innocuous headphones! They were my downfall I believe. So glad to hear that you have only mild hearing loss. Let’s keep spreading the word!
I’m a ‘retiring’ high school band director. Back in the late 1970’s my grandfather, then in his early 90’s, had his hearing tested. After the test, looking at the graph, the technician asked, “Were you an airline mechanic or a band director?” Wrong profession choice?
Haha- perhaps! Me too, but couldn’t have chosen otherwise 🙂
I am a 68 year old piano tuner-technician, I have been in the business for 48 years the last 33 full time. The initial “attack” when a piano key is struck can be 12 0 decibels, OSHA guidelines say any noise over 90 decibels (db) should be avoided or hearing protection should be worn. I dabbled with earplugs off and on for a few years but didn’t like the feeling I got wearing them. I finally committed to wearing them full-time in 1999-2000 & had a set of musicians earplugs made. My work(tuning) has improved, the earplugs are molded and fitted with a filter, 25db in my case which cuts that initial attack but allows me to hear what I need to. Because they also help eliminate or reduce ambiant noise, refrigerators, dishwashers, clothes washers, conversation, televisions, furnaces, AC, dogs barking and much much more. I find myself able to tune faster and more accurately. A couple of years ago I discovered that I had developed tinnitus. For you non-tuners, we train ourselves to ignore ambiant noise and focus/concentrate on tuning. We carry this habit over into other activities in our lives, watching TV, using the computer, working in the shop, etc. One night I turned off the TV and thought to myself how loud the crickets were that night. It was December, about 10 degrees outside, no crickets alive anymore, it was my tinnitus! I had a hearing test a year earlier and when they tested me again there was no difference. Which proves I know how to listen, there are listening techniques that will help you to hear better, after 48+ years in the business of listening I know most of them. Perhaps if I had begun using hearing protection sooner? I know the PTG is proactive about hearing protection now. I’ve been told the schools are teaching future band directors to use hearing protection.
I’m glad to hear that schools are teaching band directors about protecting their hearing. Hopefully this trickles down to the students too. Thanks for telling your story; yes, those crickets live around my house too! The musician’s ear plugs are great. My husband uses them- he sings and plays electric guitars in bands and has only slight hearing loss (probably from before he started wearing the plugs) and is able to enjoy the music without that plugged up feeling. Thanks so much!
I failed to mention the “shooter’s earmuffs” I wear when I work in my shop using machinery. They have a built-in microphone that allows speech, radio, etcetera to be heard but stops any sound over 80db IMMEDIATELY protecting the wearer from loud noise. Originally designed for target shooting they work equally well for machinery and other loud noise. I also use ear plugs when mowing, trimming and other work with yard machinery.
Oh my gosh, I never heard of those! What a revelation! Thanks for letting us know!
Glad I stopped by to read this important article. Thank you for writing it! Crickets is exactly what I hear, all the time, and like the tuner friend up there, I’ve simply learned to tune it out and only realize just how loud it is in my head when there is nothing else going on. I spent over 20 years with a click track, vocals, piano or band/orchestra going off in my left ear while the right was open to a room with 12 very STRONG singers, me included, doing choral publishing company demos all day. It’s pathetic how often I have to ask people to repeat themselves or find myself accusing others of mumbling! At 57 I’m still a long way off from retirement (can’t afford it!) and all my jobs – teaching voice and piano, audio recording and editing/mixing/mastering, substitute teaching – require excellent hearing. It’s definitely good advice to keep those ear plugs handy. I shall endeavor to improve in that area!
Yes, it is exhausting to not be able to hear all day- when we teach perform, record, and just have a conversation (especially in a restaurant or at a group gathering. But hopefully we can prevent it from getting worse with protection going forward! Thanks for telling us about your experience 🙂
Hello! My father had very bad tinnitus and constant ringing in his ears. He told me that while in training in an army facility in 1944 in the south, a loud gun went off close to him; and that is why he ended up with this painful condition. He went to various hearing doctors, but at that time (he died in 2005), he was told that a hearing aid wouldn’t help him at all. The problem was worst when we went to a crowded restaurant, because he could not separate individual voices from the din around him. I remember him telling me that he suffered greatly from the tinnitus, and that the ringing in his ears never let up. Personally, I hate loud noises. I seem to be very sensitive to things like my husband and son slamming cabinet doors, or loudly putting (or throwing!) dishes in the sink, etc. I am constantly putting my fingers in my ears, in order to protect my hearing. I always hated loud rock music, especially acid-guitar riffs. When I go to the hairdresser, I always bring my ear plugs, or I wear ear buds and listen to classical music on my i-pod. And when we travel to NYC to visit our (grown) daughter, I go crazy when I hear a loud jack-hammer, fire engine, etc. My fingers are constantly in my ears in NYC! (The subway is particularly bad.) Perhaps my father’s experience was instructive for me, but also, I have always hated loud noises. But being a “Baby Boomer,” I know that many people my age and older have suffered from attending, or playing in, loud rock concerts/bands. I have warned my 20-year-old son to be careful about not listening to really loud music via his ear buds or headphones. I hope he listens to me! Thank you so much for your instructive blog-post! –Robyn Hyman
Yikes, how awful for your dad to acquire tinnitus from a gun. Terrible reminder for the rest of your life. Hearing aids have improved a lot since 2005, but there still isn’t much the medical profession can do for tinnitus. I’m so glad to hear that you have protected your ears Robyn- you’re so smart to bring your ear plugs to the hairdresser. I visit my grown daughters in NYC too, and I agree, it’s a constant assault on my ears!
You might show your son Youtube videos of some rock stars and tell him how much they wish they had protected their ears from loud music: Sting, Pete Townsend, Bono, Will.i.am (Black-Eyed Peas), Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Ozzy Osbourne – to name a few that talk about it (most don’t- they’re so embarrassed and depressed about it). Thanks Robyn!
Robyn, I feel your pain, I am not as sensitive as you but since my ability to hear affects how I make my living I do understand. One suggestion, throw away the earbuds they are the worst way to listen to music and attempt to protect your hearing. Since they press right against the eardrum it is much too easy to damage that delicate surface. Earphones as in external are better, I don’t use either myself but I have grandchildren I care very much about. I know what NOT to do and leave the research for the best alternative to the user or in my grandkids case, my son! I was fitted for musicians ear plugs years ago they have various strength filters that filter sound from 25db, the one I use when I tune. All the way to 0db which is supposed to be no sound but without any padding over my ears & because of the bones behind my ears I still hear. They do the job for me when I go to movies or a concert. Good Luck, Mike
Movies — I haven’t been to the movies in years. They’re just too loud. I wait until they come out on Netflix. And those super fast hand driers you find in rest areas along the turnpike are deafening! I’d rather have wet hands. Call me crazy, but I value my hearing.
Going to a foreign film with ear plugs works- if there are subtitles! But otherwise it’s a real problem, I agree. I always hold my remote in my hand turning the volume up and down according to the action, but it’s always tricky trying to hear what people are saying in theaters when I’m protecting against loud noises like sirens, fights, and music.
Yes hand dryers and sometimes automatic flush toilets are so loud. I turn my hearing aids off when I walk into a public bathroom.
Thanks for your comment Toni!