While you may think hearing loss refers to when someone is deaf, there is a lot more complexity to it than that.
Hearing loss happens when any part of the ear or the auditory (hearing) system isn’t working the way it was designed to do so. And while complete deafness is what we hear about the most, there are in fact various degrees of hearing loss, ranging from mild and moderate, to severe and profound.
Hearing loss can be something you’re born with, you can have hearing loss in one or both ears, and you can experience it before or after you’ve learned to speak. It can develop slowly over time, hit you suddenly, and it can even fluctuate between getting better or worse and back again as time passes.
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is when structures in the ear become damaged, impacting one’s ability to hear. Most of the time, sounds we hear every day don’t have a negative impact on us, but repeated exposure to sound, say heavy machinery, can lead to NIHL, which can be prevented if addressed proactively and in a timely manner.
Music-induced hearing loss (MIHL) is similar to NIHL in how it presents. It can happen either temporarily or permanently and happens because of overexposure to music, also known as sound exposure. It too can be addressed and protected against proactively.
Sound exposure is similar to sun exposure in that too much of it can be harmful.
Sound exposure refers to the amount of sound energy a person’s auditory system can take over a specific amount of time. In other words, how loud for how long. It helps us understand the possible risks associated with listening to loud music or other loud sounds.
One way to develop sound-induced hearing damage (injury) or hearing loss is by being exposed to high levels of sound for long periods of time. This can happen by attending concerts often, listening to headphones at a high volume, or even working in noisy environments. Because the auditory system is sensitive to sound, repeated exposure to loud sound can damage the tiny hair cells in the inner ear, the ones responsible for transmitting sound signals to the brain.
Sound exposure is usually measured in decibels (dB) over a specific amount of time. And while Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has an occupational safety guideline regarding sound exposure, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), makes a different recommendation. It’s important to note that though OSHA creates and enforces regulations, NIOSH is focused on advancing the scientific field of occupational safety. That being said, NIOSH is slightly more protective as OSHA protects 75% of the population while NIOSH protects 92%.
OSHA allows for 8 hours of exposure to 90 dBA but only 2 hours of exposure to 100 dBA sound levels. NIOSH recommends limiting the 8-hour exposure to less than 85 dBA and 100 dBA to less than 15 minutes of exposure per day. To be clear, OSHA requires the implementation of a hearing conservation program when the Time Weighted Average (TWA – calculated as average levels of noise and the time spent) is at or above 85 dBA. However, hearing protectors are required when 90 dBA is the level for 8 hours.
The music industry is varied and unique, which means sound exposure will be very different depending on the setting or activity. Musicians, concertgoers, music venue staff, and music production professionals are all exposed to different levels of sound. Here’s a breakdown of what sound exposure looks like, depending on who you might be.
It is well known that ongoing exposure to loud sounds, especially at levels 85dB and above, can cause hearing damage over time. If you are in the music industry or are an avid concert-goer, it means your hearing is one of your most-prized senses. That is why we recommend investing in hearing protection devices, like musician’s earplugs or noise-canceling headphones. Being aware of safe sound exposure strategies and taking steps to reduce noise levels in music venues can help protect the hearing health of everyone involved in the music industry.
Here are a few helpful steps you can take to make sure you’re doing all you can to protect your hearing:
Music audiology is a special field of study in the audiology world that focuses on assessing and managing any hearing-related issues specific to musicians and people exposed to music-related sound. Music audiology professionals, also known as music audiologists, have undergone additional training and have expertise in understanding how music and sound can impact hearing health and performance.
Musicians are prone to hearing loss because of their constant exposure to loud noises. Working with an audiologist trained in music audiology can make a big difference in maintaining one’s hearing health and performance.
Music audiologists perform a variety of tasks, including:
Music audiologists have one main goal, to educate people, particularly musicians and music enthusiasts, about how important it is to take care of hearing and watch out for hearing exposure. They can help with ear protection details, advise musicians to take frequent breaks from loud sound environments and implement different preventative measures to help those in the music industry maintain healthy hearing while enjoying music.
Music audiologists are trying to prevent:
Music audiology is critical in informing about and promoting the importance of hearing health and hearing preservation for those involved in music-related activities. Aside from helping musicians with hearing conservation, hearing health evaluations, tinnitus management, hearing enhancements, and music communication, they also help with:
While you may think IEMs are safety devices, they are not. Though they may provide the wearer with better isolation along with the ability to turn the monitor mix down, they don’t do so automatically. The wearer is in charge of turning the monitor down to a safe level. But they are still a valuable tool, provided they are used properly!
This is why IEMs need to be worn in both ears at all times, and isolating models are best. Having one side halfway out is risky because you leave that one ear exposed to more risk of injury from the stage and the other ear at risk from having to increase the IEM volume. The best part about an IEM is that when you wear both IEMs, the brain perceives the sound at 6-9 dB higher, which helps you hear better. Always be sure to check the IEM seal, measure output levels, and get your hearing tested annually so you’re always aware of what is happening with your hearing.
A person’s hearing perception is influenced by ear canal resonance, neural pathways, and the individual’s personal experience with sound. This is why music industry professionals can technically train their ears to work with any kind of hearing protection, though some earplugs make it easier than others. Hearing protection devices can be either active or passive.
Pre-molded hearing protection devices are popular but should also be used carefully. If musicians are unsure whether the molded device fits properly, it is always best to meet with an audiologist who will be able to do the proper testing and assessment to ensure you’re not unwittingly damaging your ears.
Remember, hearing protection isn’t only about earplugs; it’s much more than that. It requires working with a trained audiologist so you get proper care and are given the important information you need to maintain your hearing health. It’s about using the product that is right for your needs, not just from a brand you admire. And being proactive about your hearing health is critical, annual hearing tests are strongly encouraged.
If you’re using any hearing assistive devices, like earplugs or IEMs, be sure to have them checked for fit regularly. An annual hearing exam is an excellent opportunity to ensure you still have a proper seal and that your earplugs or IEMs are doing their jobs properly.
Are you a musician or do you have a musician you care about in your life? If you want to continue creating or appreciating music for years to come and haven’t seen a music audiologist yet, or in a long while, maybe it’s time you do.
Make an appointment with a music audiologist near you and take control of your hearing health. Together, you can work on a plan to ensure your hearing is cared for in the way it deserves.
Longmont Hearing and Tinnitus Center has music audiologists trained in ensuring that musicians’ hearing health is in the best possible condition. Contact us today!