April 13, 2013

Music and Hearing Loss

Most musicians only talk about hearing loss, almost superstitiously, when discussing Beethoven but it is a real concern for ALL musicians. Ear plugs are a good thing to keep in your music bag especially for piccolo players. I wear one in my right ear every time I play picc because after a day of playing without one, I can feel a (small and temporary so far, happily) difference in my hearing.
I tried out several different ear plugs to find one that would be comfortable while protecting my hearing without blocking it completely. For orchestral work, I have a small, cheap, rubber earplug that doesn't take much, if any, effort to get in and out so I can pop it in and out during short rests. But I use a foam one that takes some time to put in properly when I'm going to play with the plug for long stretches. It's comfy, stays put and since I won't be taking it out much, I'm willing to take the extra time getting it in place. I shop for cheap plugs because I do lose them from time to time and they tend to be smaller which works better for me. I don't use earplugs made for musicians because not only are they pricier, they are usually much too big and hurt my ear (I hate most earbuds for the same reason). But other folks may not have that trouble. Everyone is built different so an earplug that works perfectly for me may not work for you. Test them out!
Playing with the plug does change how things sound but it is possible to adapt to listening more with the other ear. Anytime I think I'll need an earplug for performance, I make sure to practice with it to be used to how the music sounds with the earplug. It felt odd at first but now I can adapt to the plug quite quickly. I recommend doing some work with a tuner while wearing the earplug just to get the feel of tuning with your other ear. I use a couple of different kinds of ear plugs that block sound to different degrees. When I’m playing with a loud, amplified group, I often mix and match plugs. I wear one that blocks less sound in the ear that is farthest from the loudest instrument in the group. It's not uncommon for the picc to be loudest (at least to me) but sometimes those amplified keyboard players don't realize just how loud their sound is.
But you can be sure, if the group decides to crank it up to 11, I pull out the heaviest plugs I have and make no apologies.

Sound Levels of Music
Normal piano practice 60 -70dB
Fortissimo Singer, 3' 70dB
Chamber music, small auditorium 75 - 85dB
Piano Fortissimo 84 - 103dB
Violin 82 - 92dB
Cello 85 -111dB
Oboe 95-112dB
Flute  92 -103dB
Piccolo 90 -106dB
Clarinet 85 - 114dB
French horn 90 - 106dB
Trombone 85 - 114dB
Tympani & bass drum 106dB
Walkman on 5/10 94dB
Symphonic music peak 120 - 137dB
Amplifier, rock, 4-6' 120dB
Rock music peak 150dB
  • 90-95 dB is the level when sustained exposure may cause hearing loss. 125 dB is the level when pain begins. 140dB is the level when short term exposure may cause hearing loss.
  • One-third of the total power of a 75-piece orchestra comes from the bass drum.
  • High frequency sounds of 2-4,000 Hz are the most damaging. The uppermost octave of the piccolo is 2,048-4,096 Hz.
  • Hypertension and various psychological difficulties can be related to noise exposure.
  • The incidence of hearing loss in classical musicians has been estimated at 4-43%, in rock musicians 13-30%.
Chart on decibel levels from  www.gcaudio.com/resources/howtos/loudness.html