By Yishane Lee
Noise-induced hearing loss affects anyone exposed to very loud or chronic noise. It doesn’t matter if the “noise” is actually music. It has been estimated that up to half of classical orchestral musicians have hearing loss because of their work in music, practicing or performing up to eight hours a day. Sound levels onstage, no matter the music genre, can reach up to 110 decibels (dB), although it is not usually continuous. That is equivalent to a jackhammer—even if there’s a melody behind it.
Researchers at the Nofer Institute of Occupational Medicine in Poland measured the exposure for classical musicians as 81 to 90 dBA (A-weighted decibels, a unit of measure for how humans perceive sound) for 20 to 45 hours a week. In their study published in the International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics, they estimated that this exposure over the course of a career increases the risk of a hearing loss of 35 dB by 26 percent. At the greatest risk for hearing loss are those in the brass section—horn, trumpet, tuba—as well as those playing percussion, the study found.
Prolonged exposure at 85 dB (the sound of heavy traffic) will permanently damage the delicate hair cells of the inner ear, leading to hearing loss. Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, is another potential problem. Roughly 90 percent of tinnitus cases occur with an underlying hearing loss.
Not surprisingly, rock and jazz musicians are not immune. Indeed, there are a number of well-known rock and pop musicians who have publicly discussed their hearing loss and/or tinnitus, among them Sting, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Phil Collins, and Will.i.am.
But hearing loss due to noise (or music) is completely preventable. A related study by the Polish scientists determined that brass players benefitted the most from the use of custom-molded, silicone earplugs with acoustic filters that reduced sound levels. Woodwind, percussion, and string players also benefited.
In 2013, the Les Paul Foundation and HHF teamed up to launch the Les Paul Ambassadors program. Guitar great Les Paul was determined to find a cure for hearing loss and tinnitus, and through his foundation’s support of HHF’s Hearing Restoration Project, an international research consortium of top hearing scientists, we have the opportunity to find a cure. Learn about the program and the first Ambassador, Lou Pallo, as well as our other Ambassadors saxophonist Chris Potter and jazz pianist John Colianni.
Learn more about NIHL and its risk factors, treatment, and prevention in our new Summer issue of Hearing Health magazine.