Celebrity, fortune, and screaming fans — these are a few of the words and phrases you’d select to describe the reality of a professional musician. But what you more than likely wouldn’t take into account is “hearing loss” or “tinnitus,” the not-so-enjoyable side-effects of all that celebrity, fortune, and screaming. The sad paradox is, a musician’s hearing is just what is most subject to injury from the performance of their trade.

The fact is, musicians are about four times more likely to acquire noise-induced hearing loss in comparison with the average person, reported by researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology. The research study also discovered that professional musicians are approximately 57% more likely to suffer from tinnitus — a disorder associated with a chronic ringing in the ears.

The root cause: repeated subjection to high decibel noise. With time, loud sound will irreparably damage the hair cells of the inner ear, which are the sensory receptors responsible for transferring sound to the brain. Like an abundant patch of grass worn out from repeated trampling, the hair cells can in the same way be wiped out from frequent overexposure to loud noise – the distinction, of course, being that you can’t plant brand new hair cells.

Just how loud are rock concerts?

To illustrate the problem, hearing loss begins with repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels (decibels being a unit used to quantify loudness). That may well not mean a great deal to you, until you have a look at the decibel levels associated with typical activities:

  • Whisper at 6 feet: 30 decibels (dB)
  • Normal dialogue at 3 feet: 60 – 65 (dB)
  • Motorcycle: 100 dB
  • Front row at a rock concert: 120 to 150 dB

In non-technical terms, rock concerts are literally ear-splittingly loud, and repetitive unguarded exposure can cause some considerable damage, which, regrettably, many notable musicians have recently attested to.

Chris Martin, the lead singer for the music group Coldplay, has dealt with with Tinnitus for a decade. According to Martin:

“Looking after your ears is unfortunately something you don’t think about until there’s a problem. I’ve had tinnitus for about 10 years, and since I started protecting my ears it hasn’t got any worse (touch wood). But I wish I’d thought about it earlier. Now we always use moulded filter plugs, or in-ear monitors, to try and protect our ears. You CAN use industrial headphones, but that looks strange at a party.”

Other significant musicians that suffer from hearing loss or tinnitus include Neil Young, Ozzy Osbourne, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Bono, Sting, Ryan Adams, and more, many of which voice regret that they hadn’t done more to safeguard their ears during their careers. According to Lars Ulrich from Metallica:

“If you get a scratch on your nose, in a week that’ll be gone. When you scratch your hearing or damage your hearing, it doesn’t come back. I try to point out to younger kids … once your hearing is gone, it’s gone, and there’s no real remedy.”

How musicians, and fans, can protect their ears

Although musicians are at greater risk for developing hearing loss or tinnitus, the threat can be dramatically reduced by assuming protective measures. Considering the unique needs of musicians — and the significance of maintaining the detDue to the unique requirements of musicians — and the importance of preserving the fine details of sound — the first step is to schedule an appointment with an audiologist.

Here’s a classic error: musicians will often delay seeing an audiologist until they experience one or more of these signs or symptoms:

  • A ringing or buzzing noise in the ears
  • Any pain or discomfort in the ears
  • Difficulty understanding speech
  • Difficulty following conversations in the presence of background noise

The issue is, when these symptoms are found to exist, the harm has already been done. So, the number one thing a musician can do to deter long-term, permanent hearing loss is to schedule an appointment with an audiologist before symptoms are present.

If you’re a musician, an audiologist can recommend specialty musicians’ plugs or in-ear-monitors that will protect your hearing without diminishing your musical abilities. As a musician, you have distinctive needs for hearing and hearing protection, and audiologists or hearing specialists are the experts specifically trained to provide this tailor-made protection.

Also bear in mind that it’s not only musicians at risk: concert-goers are just as susceptible. So the next time you’re front row at a rock concert, remember that 120 decibels of hair-cell-killing volume is pumping right from the speakers right into your ears.