You wouldn’t go outside and stare straight into the sun. And when you do go out on a sunny day, you probably wear sunglasses. Not just because they look cool, but because you want to protect your eyesight.
When you play live music or you go to hear your favorite band, if you don’t have hearing protection, it’s kind of like you’re doing the sonic equivalent of staring straight into the sun. But a lot of people don’t think about protecting their hearing the way they think about protecting their eyesight.
You’ve probably heard or played some pretty loud concerts, and you’ve almost certainly experienced ringing in your ears for a day or so after a show. That ringing in your ears has a name: it’s called tinnitus, and it’s a symptom of hearing damage. In most cases it goes away in just a day or two, but sometimes, after enough exposure to loud sounds—like your favorite band—it can become permanent.
I knew a guitarist who was only in his twenties who had tinnitus permanently. The ringing in his ears was so bad that he had to sleep with a radio on to drown out the “eeeeeeeeeeeee.” Imagine living with that the rest of your life, especially when it’s something you know you could have prevented.
A lot of people probably don’t realize just how loud and how damaging the volume levels at a live music event can be. During normal speech, most people speak at about 60 decibels. A concert, especially a band with drums and electric guitars, can reach 100 to 120 decibels. The hard thing to appreciate about the decibel scale is that it isn’t linear, it’s logarithmic. That means increasing the volume by only 10 decibels is actually doubling the volume. So a concert that’s 120 decibels isn’t twice as loud as normal speech, it’s actually ten times as loud.
Keep this in mind when you’re playing your next show or going to see that next band. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, hearing damage can start at just 85 decibels—around four times the volume of normal speech. So when you crank up your amp at the next gig, or go the hear your favorite band, and you’re hearing sound in that 100 to 120 decibel range, remember that what you’re experiencing isn’t just kind of loud; it’s really loud!
So, what can you do?
Get some ear plugs. Not the squishy foam kind that you can get at the hardware store. Those work, but they also muffle the sound. You want something that will reduce the decibels you’re ears are receiving without losing sonic clarity. That way you can protect your hearing and still enjoy the music. There are some inexpensive brands of ear plugs, like Hearos, that do this fairly well; or better yet, you can go to an audiologist and have some ear plugs custom made for you. Most audiologists will make earplugs specifically designed for musicians and concert goers, and the cost isn’t usually much more than a pair of nice sunglasses.
If you’re a gigging musician, and you have the budget, you can also opt for custom fit in-ear monitors. These shield your ears from the stage volume while allowing you to hear everything like you would through floor monitors, just at a safer volume level. But these are pretty expensive, so a lot of gigging musicians will find having ear plugs made by an audiologist the best option.
You love live music, that’s why you play in a band; that’s why you frequent concerts. Do yourself a favor. Get some ear plugs. Protect your hearing so that you can continue to enjoy the music you love.
Not convinced? Watch this video with guitarist Steve Vai. He discusses the importance of taking steps to protect your hearing from the damage that can be caused by loud music.