Hearing Loss By the Numbers
A few years ago, the internet was abuzz with Janet Horvath, longtime musician health advocate, author of "Playing Less Hurt," and former cellist in the Minnesota symphony, and her battle with hearing damage from loud amplified concerts. ( hyperacusis: "an auditory injury caused by repeated exposure to high decibels or a single acoustic shock") Her story in the Atlantic is truly harrowing, especially after years of awareness and prevention on her part, but it is a true cautionary tale to all musicians.
Let's look at hearing...by the numbers.
dB (decibels) measure sound on a logarithmic scale, meaning that sound increases of 10 dB are actually an increase of the power of 10. (If you don't remember this portion of your high school mathematics curriculum, you are not alone).
Decibels in Environment and Music (adapted from hear net.com)
*80-90 dB marks the beginning of the danger zone of sound
125 dB causes immediate pain
60-70 dB is a normal conversation
95 dB is a subway train
107 db- power mower
60-70 db- normal piano practice
75-85 dB- chamber music concert
92-95 dB- piano extremes
84-103 dB- violin range
84-92 dB- cello
85-111 dB- flute
95-112 dB- piccolo (imagine when they're doubled and at maximum volume in Shostakovich or Tchaikovksy…)
85-114 dB- trombone
106 dB- timpani/bass drum rolls
130 + dB- high end of trumpet
So what does this all mean? Well these are individual instrument readings, which means that if you are in the thick of an orchestra, small ensemble, new music ensemble, or band, the combined sounds can be more intense on a logarithmic scale. Loud shows with amplification can exceed volume beyond a typical classical concert as well, especially if you're playing onstage or close to speakers. Hearing loss can be short term or long term, and can take a few different forms. Many of us have had tinnitus (ringing in the ears), after sitting in an orchestra danger zone, which might go away after a few days or even hours. There is also sustained progressive hearing loss due to consistent exposure to high volume sounds. What makes this all even scarier is that when musicians are tested for hearing loss, especially in an orchestra, the numbers are relatively high. If you look up statistics for hearing loss in the symphony, the numbers range from 35% to 70%, depending on the questions asked, the year, the age of musician, etc. Even if it's on the low end of 35%, that's actually a rather high percentage for folks who need to make their living this way! The simple answer is to start using earplugs for musicians ASAP, and if nothing else, use foam earplugs. Most ensembles provide earplugs for free as part of the OSHA requirements, but it is definitely worth it to invest in a nicer set that doesn't block out all frequencies equally. Many of my colleagues use Etymotics, either as custom made earplugs or just the generic $12 ones. Both are an improvement upon foam earplugs. Many earplugs come with different filters/levels of sound diminishing, depending on what you need. Custom earplugs will often have the option to adjust to where you sit, what you play, and what clarity you need.
Some of the more dangerous zones in the orchestra:
Piccolo hot seat- second violins right next to the piccolo
Percussion explosion- brass players, bassoonists, and clarinetists often get a double dose of loud percussion and brass in momentous forte sections
Trombone Zone- Cellists, bassists, and violists in front
It is not usually the fault of these instrumentalists that their instruments are loud, or that composers ask them to play fortissimo and beyond (wagner, strauss...), and it is often your job to seek out shields or earplugs in those situations, and hope that the conductor will manage volumes when appropriate. In addition, it's important to be clear with management about the importance of shells for protection. Some of the orchestras I've played with did not provide protection, and while I often have my earplugs in my case, many others don't. If you are a sub or extra musician, always bring your own plugs. It can be stressful to tell personnel managers about the sound situation, especially if it's a high profile concert or conductor. Your long term hearing is more valuable than your ability to play fast passages in a Wagner overture, Mahler symphony, contemporary piece, or Pops show. If you can't hear yourself over the cacophony, chances are, your stand partner can't either, nor can the section leader or concertmaster. (Not to say that preparation is optional, but sometimes folks are afraid to use earplugs lest they play wrongly or out of tune). Prepare well and also experiment with knowing your own volume with and without earplugs so that you can start to be more comfortable using them. Many of my colleagues have found most success by using one earplug and leaving the other ear open directly next to the instrument, although there's certainly a case for mixing it up to prevent long term asymmetry.
If you are a youth orchestra coach/leader/teacher, check out the situation in your class or ensemble. Many teenagers are not apt to worry about hearing loss, and your assistance could make a big difference. Also, avoid always use in-ear headphones, which are more damaging long term to your hearing depending on the frequency and volume of music/sound listened to.
One last excellent point that my friend trombonist Chris Wolf pointed out to me, is that many musicians deal with something called the occlusion effect when earplugs are in, meaning that the sounds are perceived as booming, and difficult to perceive in context. Many of my friends who don't use earplugs say that they can't hear their section or intonation well, but just can hear their breath (especially wind players). It seems as though hearing specialists have addressed this issue in the context of hearing aids, but I wonder if it's something that audiologists are looking at for musicians, especially those who play wind instruments. If any of you have any experience with resolving this issue or know of a brand of earplug that addresses this, let me know!