Your band has a gig next weekend and the only place to practice is a storage unit you’re renting. There’s a tricky solo in the set, so you take an extra hour or so to nail it. It’s only when hunger strikes and you finally peel away for dinner that you notice it—that ringing sound. That obnoxious, stuffy, buzzing in your ears. You know it’s not good, but you’re not too worried. It always seems to clear up in a day or two.
The problem is, that ringing isn’t clearing up, it’s a symptom of hearing damage. And although the effects may feel temporary, hearing damage is cumulative and irreversible. Eventually, repeated exposure to loud sounds can lead to tinnitus and noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).
Fortunately, NIHL is completely preventable. And for musicians who depend on their ears to make a living, the proper hearing protection can protect your livelihood and allow you to safely enjoy music throughout your life.
To raise awareness of this important issue, we’ve compiled an overview of how hearing works and three ways you can protect your hearing from NIHL. Even if you already suffer from some level of hearing loss, you can still use these tips to prevent further damage and enjoy music for many years to come.
What Is Noise-Induced Hearing Loss?
To understand how tools like earplugs protect our hearing, it helps to understand a bit about how hearing and sound work.
Sound is measured in units called decibels (dB). Sounds under 75 decibels, even after long exposure, are unlikely to cause hearing loss. That’s why we can have a conversation (about 60dB) without worrying about damage.
However, long or repeated exposure to sounds above 85 decibels is considered dangerous. The louder the sound, the shorter the amount of time it takes for NIHL to occur. To give you an idea of what that means, a motorcycle is about 95dB, a rock concert can reach over 100dB, and a siren is about 120dB.
When sound waves enter the ear canal, they vibrate the eardrum and move along a system of bones and the snail-shaped cochlea. The cochlea is where little hairs, or stereocilia, live. These tiny hairs bend from the vibrations to create a chemical rush. This chemical process transforms the sound waves into electrical signals that our brain translates to information we understand.
Sounds above 85dB overstimulate the stereocilia, damaging the hairs themselves. This overstimulation can create disruptions or gaps in the hairs until eventually, they’re no longer functional.
Part of why this is so dangerous is because damage to the stereocilia doesn’t really feel like anything. It’s why so much damage can be done to those hair cells before you even notice a difference. According to the CDC, most people are born with about 16,000 hair cells within their cochlea. But, “up to 30% to 50% of hair cells can be damaged or destroyed before changes in your hearing can be measured by a hearing test. By the time you notice hearing loss, many hair cells have been destroyed and cannot be repaired.”
You can learn more about how hearing works from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Three Easy Ways to Protect Your Hearing
For musicians, loud sounds are a part of life. Unfortunately, for many years, the tools and resources we have today didn’t exist for previous generations of musicians. But even if you’ve already had some noise-induced hearing loss, you can prevent further damage with the proper tools and information.
1. Be Mindful of Your Environment
If you’ve never thought about your hearing before, just being mindful of the sounds around you is a great place to start. We live in an increasingly loud world and even our day-to-day lives can easily exceed the 85dB threshold. Using a decibel measuring device or even a decibel reader app on your phone can give you an idea of just how loud your environment is. This awareness can give you an idea of what kind of decibels you encounter on a daily basis, and make you aware of any activities that require hearing protection.
2. Wear Custom In-Ear Monitors
Even without the roar of the crowd, rehearsals and individual practice can consistently strain a musician’s ears. In-ear monitors (IEMs) are a great way to reduce this stress. IEMs help by reducing external sounds, providing clarity and detail in a controlled mix environment, and allowing musicians to listen to their mix at lower volumes overall. This is especially true for custom in-ear monitors (CIEMs). A perfect, custom fit provides a better seal for isolation and is often more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time compared to universal-fit models.
3. Wear Custom Earplugs
It’s just as important to protect your ears offstage as it is onstage. Some people wear their IEMs as earplugs during loud events like concerts. However, this can put your equipment at unnecessary risk of damage and may not provide the right level of isolation.
When you’re not listening to music, earplugs are the best way to protect your ears in loud environments. At the most basic level, there are two types of earplugs—high fidelity earplugs and solid earplugs.
Solid earplugs are made to block out sound. The most common version of this earplug is the universal-fit foam ones you can get in bulk. These usually distort or muffle the sound around you, but do provide isolation and a great budget-friendly option. In general, solid earplugs are perfect for activities like sleeping in a noisy area or even riding a motorcycle, where clarity of sound isn’t an issue.
High fidelity earplugs, sometimes called earplugs for musicians, are great when you want clearer sounds. When you’re at a concert or a busy restaurant, you want to hear what’s going on, just at lower volumes. High fidelity earplugs help preserve the clarity of the sounds of the environment around you while simply reducing the overall volume.
Our Custom Earplugs can work as either type.
Similar to our CIEMs, our custom earplugs are designed for our m15 or m20 apex™ modules, allowing listeners to choose their preferred isolation level in any given environment. Apex also helps the eardrum remain relaxed by venting the pressure build-up, which reduces ear fatigue and provides a more comfortable listening experience.
For events where you need a solid earplug, you can simply swap out apex for our solid -26dB plug. This design is a solid plug without the same high-fidelity benefits of apex, but it is the same size and shape so you can easily swap the modules depending on your needs.
Bonus! Visit an Audiologist
When in doubt, visit your audiologist or get a recommendation from your GP. Audiologists identify, diagnose, and provide treatment options for patients with hearing loss and dizziness. If you ever have concerns or questions, don’t hesitate to consult these professionals.
For many people, looking after their hearing isn’t something they think about until there’s a problem. The more awareness we can bring to this important issue, the better we can protect ourselves and others from NIHL. Start reducing your volumes and buy a set of earplugs today, and help spread the word so we can all enjoy the music and sounds we love for years to come.