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The Hidden Dangers of the Sound of Music

The Hidden Dangers of the Sound of Music

by Wade Sutton, Rocket to the Stars

The damage to your hearing caused by loud music at your show this weekend will not rear its ugly head until nearly ten years from now.  

Think about that for a moment.

I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard that fact.  It was just a few days after Memorial Day in 2012.  Rocket to the Stars' massive singing competition was in full swing and we were about six weeks away from our finals.  Many of us from the show were gathered in an upstairs room at CJ Cochran's Day Spa and Salon about an hour north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and it was the first time we invited doctors from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to talk to our contestants about hearing loss prevention and vocal health.

Read that statement again and let it sink in:  "The damage to your hearing caused by loud music at your show this weekend will not rear its ugly head until nearly ten years from now."

This article is about to get much more shocking for many of you singers and musicians.

Dr. Catherine V. Palmer, PhD is one of my favorite people that I have met since founding Rocket to the Stars.  She was hired at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in 1990 and became director of Audiology and Hearing Aids in the Department of Otolaryngology in 1998.  Her education is impressive, having earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst before receiving her master's degree and doctorate at Northwestern University.  Dr. Palmer's biography on the UPMC website says she specializes in rehabilitative audiology including "the use of hearing aids and other assistave devices to improve communications for individuals with hearing loss".  She created, and has since directed, the Musician's Hearing Center at UPMC in 2003. It goes without saying that she really knows her stuff...and she has been a very good friend to Rocket to the Stars over the past two years.  She was the first person I called when I decided to write this article.

One of my previous interviews with Dr. Palmer came in the form of a thirty-minute radio segment that was recorded a little more than one year ago.  During that discussion, Dr. Palmer brought up the fact that, for many years, many musicians and singers refused to wear hearing protection because the earplugs that were available at the time attenuated some sounds more than others.  It resulted in the muffling of speech and music, something artists simply would not tolerate.  Unfortunately for many of them, from the heavy metal guitarists shredding in sold out arenas to the trombone player in the high school music class, they did not realize just what they were exposing themselves to.


To understand what happens when you lose your hearing, you must first have a working knowledge of HOW you hear.  The ear is made of up three major areas: outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear.  When sound waves travel through the outer ear, they cause the eardrum to vibrate.  The eardrum works in partnership with three small bones in the middle ear to amplify those vibrations as they make their way to the inner ear.  It is there that the vibrations pass through the fluid contained within the cochlea.

Got all that?  There is a little more to it, so stick with me.  The cochlea has nerve cells.  Attached to those nerve cells are thousands of tiny hairs (cilia).  Those hairs take the sound vibrations and turn them into electrical signals that are sent to your brain, resulting in you hearing what you hear.

Hearing loss can be caused by a number of things but for the purpose of this article, we are concentrating on hearing loss brought on by loud music.  When you are exposed to prolonged periods of loud noise or music, the hairs and nerves in the cochlea (in the inner ear) suffer wear and tear.  That results in the electrical signals to your brain not being transmitted properly.  The hearing loss leaves musicians and singers having problems with background noise mixing with words.

And another thing to consider: says heredity can make you more prone to that type of hearing loss.  Another thing to keep in mind is that loud, sustained noises aren't the only thing putting you at risk.  Sudden blasts of sound are also dangerous as they could result in a ruptured eardrum, known as tympanic membrane perforation.  It is similar to when somebody experiences sudden changes in pressure.


Dr. Palmer gave me some interesting numbers (see chart below) compiled by the Center for Human Performance and Health in Ontario, Canada.  It shows measurements of decibel levels (dB(A)) of various musical instruments and bands.  Below that are additional figures I found on while writing this story.  Many doctors say the 90 dB(A) level is when you start putting yourself at serious risk of hearing damage.  Many people will find it hard to believe, but studies show a flute can reach decibel levels comparable to a jackhammer, while an orchestra peaking during a performance can be almost as loud as a jet engine during take off.  Even something as small as a violin can easily go beyond that 90 dB(A) mark...and that is an instrument that typically rests just a few short inches from the musician's ear.

Musical Instrument Sound Levels

Normal piano practice                                   60-70 dB(A)

Chamber Music in Small Auditorium         75-85 dB(A)

Piano Fortissimo                                             92-95 dB(A)

Violin                                                                84-103 dB(A)

Cello                                                                  82-92 dB(A)

Oboe                                                                  90-94 dB(A)

Flute                                                                 85-111 dB(A)

Piccolo                                                             95-112 dB(A)

Clarinet                                                           92-103 dB(A)

French Horn                                                  90-106 dB(A)

Trombone                                                       85-114 dB(A)

Band (average)                                               97 dB(A)

Timpani and Bass Drum Rolls                    106 dB(A)

Orchestra Peaks                                            120-137 dB(A)

Band at a Sporting Event                            100-120 dB(A)      

Additional Common Sound Levels

Jackhammer                                                   110 dB(A)

Emergency Vehicle Siren                             115 dB(A)

Air Raid Siren                                                 135 dB(A)

Jet Engine During Take Off                           140 dB(A)

Another thing that jumps out to me when looking at the numbers Dr. Palmer sent to Rocket to the Stars for this piece:  a band performing at a sporting event typically registers between 100 - 120 dB(A).  Note that the range provided there is for just the band while it is performing and does not take into account noise generated by screaming fans and stadium public address systems, which are loud in their own right.  In fact those can easily hit the 100 decibel mark and, in that situation, you are exposed to those loud noises over a period of three or four hours.


Another common problem many singers and musicians find themselves coping with is called tinnitus.  That is the extremely annoying ringing, buzzing, clicking, or hissing you get in your ears.  The Mayo Clinic says tinnitus isn't a condition itself - it is more a symptom of an underlying condition, such as age-related hearing loss, an ear injury, or a circulatory system disorder.  

There are two types of tinnitus.  Subjective tinnitus causes ringing and hissing that only you can hear.  The other type, objective tinnitus, is a form of tinnitus that your doctor can hear during an examination.  Objective tinnitus is rare and Mayo Clinic says it can be caused by a blood vessel problem, muscle contractions, or an inner ear bone condition.  Tinnitus has several risk factors that go beyond exposure to loud music.  Smokers have a higher risk of developing it and men are more likely to experience it than women.

Tinnitus brings many concerns other than the "phantom" noises that annoy you while coping with it.  Doctors say it can have a significant affect on your quality of life, leading to problems such as fatigue, stress, sleep problems, anxiety, and depression.  If you find yourself coping with tinnitus, don't ignore it because it can be treated.  Some musicians and singers try to live in denial thinking the problem is more serious than it really is and, as a result, they don't seek help even though it is available.  Dr. Palmer says the treatment program at UPMC usually takes 12 to 18 months to complete.  


One of the best forms of ear protection on the market, not to mention they are inexpensive, are the ER20s by Etymotic Research.  The standard fit plugs can be purchased on for less than $20.00 USD (at the time of this writing).  Dr. Palmer and the rest of the folks at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center recommend them and they have high user ratings on Amazon.  In fact, Dr. Palmer loves these little guys so much she talks about them when she goes into Pittsburgh-area high schools as part of a program to educate bands on hearing loss.

Why do musicians and singers think so highly of them?  Because they reduce the decibel level of sound going into your ear without making what you hear sound muffled.  The sound quality is preserved while protecting your hearing.

Displaying Wade's Pic.jpg

After spending nearly twenty years as a professional radio journalist, Rocket to the Stars creator Wade Sutton now helps singers and bands all over world advance their music careers.  He offers classes and consultations on everything from how bands can better interact with the media to designing their websites and media kits.  Wade's articles have been read by people in more than twenty countries and have been shared by top music industry officials and voice instructors, marketing experts, radio stations, and artists.  You can learn more about him and his services


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