Hearing Protection Myths and Recommendations: The Lowdown from Two Rock-Star Audiologists

Fresh on the heels of Brian Johnson’s stunning departure from AC/DC’s current tour due to the threat of total deafness, many musicians will tell you that their hearing is extremely important, but few do anything to protect it. Why?

To find out, we sat down with audiologists Heather Malyuk, AuD, director of Sensaphonics Hearing Wellness and Michael Santucci, AuD, owner and founder of the company, about what every musician should know about their hearing. Malyuk and Santucci treat everyone from hobby musicians to legendary rock stars and Grammy winners, often seeing patients backstage when they tour through Chicago.

Malyuk likes to compare musicians to professional athletes. Professional athletes work hard to "protect their moneymaker;" they keep their bodies in shape and take care of them. She thinks musicians need to view their hearing the same way.

"Sometimes I am shocked at how careless some musicians tend to be when it comes to protecting their ears, yet they’re so protective of their hands. Doesn’t make any sense to me. Music is all about listening."

Yet, there tends to be a culture of silence in the music industry around the need to protect one’s hearing, and often, even secrecy and denial around issues of hearing loss and damage. Perhaps this is why everyone is reeling from Johnson’s revelation?

Bassist Tal Wilkenfeld pulls no punches in elevating the importance of protecting one’s hearing. "Sometimes I am shocked at how careless some musicians tend to be when it comes to protecting their ears, yet they’re so protective of their hands. Doesn’t make any sense to me. Music is all about listening," she says. Logical, yes. But she is rare in the industry.

Perhaps because hearing is such an inherent part of music-making, it doesn’t get much thought. Or perhaps we don’t think about it until we have a problem. Jim James, lead singer of My Morning Jacket, said what he was most surprised to learn about his own hearing health was just how important it is. And he’s not alone.

"It feels so good and exciting to hear music and play music loud," James says. "You want to be able to do it for a long time to come. So you have to walk the right line of loud and exciting and safety so that you can continue to have fun and not damage your hearing."

Common Myths About Musicians & Hearing

James represents a growing number of artists in the industry starting to actively protect their hearing. But, not only is there a lack of information and conversation around this topic, there is also a lot of misinformation as well. Malyuk and Santucci point out seven myths they most often hear from musicians and the truth behind them.

MYTH #1: As a musician, I only need to worry about hearing loss.

TRUTH: In addition to being concerned about hearing loss, musicians should also be concerned with developing hearing disorders, which can include any of the following, either temporarily or permanently:

  • ear pain
  • ringing in the ears
  • muffled sounds
  • a feeling of fatigue after exposure (auditorily or physically)
  • hypersensitivity to certain sounds.

Though it seems counterintuitive, Malyuk explains that when you lose hearing, you can actually become more sensitive to loud sounds.

MYTH #2: Hearing loss or damage is part of the job and will happen anyway due to aging.

TRUTH: Musicians don’t have to suffer hearing loss. There is a lot they can do to protect their hearing. And, FYI, hearing loss is not simply caused by age, according to Santucci.

MYTH #3: Hearing loss comes with side-effects. Many think, "If it were happening to me, I would know it. And I don’t have any ringing."

TRUTH: Hearing damage can occur without you even realizing it, and your ears don’t have to hurt or have ringing in order for damage to happen. "Many people with noise-induced hearing loss say that they’ve never had ringing," according to Santucci.

MYTH #4: If you experience ringing in the ears, pain, distorted or muffled sound or hypersensitivity after a rehearsal, playing a gig or attending a show, but your hearing returns to normal the next day, you haven’t damaged your ears.

TRUTH: Long-term damage may have been done — you just don’t notice it yet.

MYTH #5: The damage is done. It’s too late to do anything about it, so why bother?

TRUTH: "It’s never too late," according to Malyuk. While most hearing loss cannot be reversed, your remaining hearing can be stabilized and further damage and loss often can be prevented.

MYTH #6: There’s no such thing as good earplugs.

TRUTH: There are currently excellent earplugs on the market that are designed for musicians and allow you to hear music clearly, just at a lower level. You may even want to consider custom earplugs, molded to your ear for an even higher level of protection and comfort.

MYTH #7: In-ear monitors will protect your hearing.

TRUTH: They might or they might not. Not all in-ear monitors (IEMs) are created equal, as you’ll see.

How to Protect Yourself (and Your Career)

So, what should you do? Be proactive, protect your hearing and get an annual hearing exam.

"The cornerstone of any hearing loss prevention program is a baseline test and then periodic retesting to determine if what you’re doing is actually working," Santucci says, so get tested annually and find out if you have any issues early on.

Malyuk makes an astute analogy, "It’s like going to the dentist." Many people put it off, out of fear or simply believe it’s a low priority, and end up going only when there’s a bigger problem. Had they gone earlier, it would’ve been a lot easier and better for their hearing health.

1. Understand How Hearing Damage Happens

For an injury to occur, it’s not just how loud the music is, it’s the combination of the decibel (dB) level and the length of time you are exposed at that level. So it’s important to know the levels at which you are playing/rehearsing and the length of time you are playing/rehearsing at those levels — and to know what levels are considered safe.

Malyuk says there are many sound meter apps out there to help you measure your sound levels (though she says some are better than others) or you can purchase a noise dosimeter — she says the better ones will show you minutes of safety as well as dB level.

As a general guide, Malyuk suggests following the the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Safe Exposure Guidelines.

As you can see, the guidelines vary significantly. While NIOSH is the more strict of the two guidelines and protects more people, Malyuk notes that many musicians find NIOSH’s guidelines too difficult to follow. So, realistically, she says most musicians might have a higher likelihood of following the OSHA guidelines, which are still better than nothing.

That said, Santucci points out that it is important to note that people can differ at what point they will incur damage — much like how people can differ regarding sun exposure. Some will get a sunburn faster than others. Thus, it is always better to err on the side of caution.

2. Protect Your Hearing Consistently

Malyuk and Santucci recommend using high-quality earplugs every time you may be exposed to loud music and/or sounds.

More specifically, musicians should protect their hearing not only when practicing and playing live, but also in their personal lives. Your ears don’t know the difference between your work and personal life, and it all takes a toll.

Musicians tend to be fans of other musicians and see a lot of shows. It is imperative that they protect their hearing during those shows, too. And, they should also wear hearing protection while doing any other loud activities, like: using power tools, mowing the lawn, riding a motorcycle, shooting guns, going out to nightclubs, etc.

3. Understand It’s Buyer Beware

Santucci and Maluk cannot stress enough the importance of thoroughly researching any hearing conservation products you purchase.

AKG IVM 4500 Wireless System

"A lot of companies, whether it’s in-ears or hearing protection, will say that certain musicians need certain things depending on their instrument," Malyuk says. "Ask your audiologist what’s appropriate for you based on your exposure time."

Malyuk also says that "in-ear monitors are not all created equally." Many in-ear monitor companies will tell you to "use their products safely" or "correctly" but can’t tell you how or what that means. If the company can’t give you clear guidelines on how to safely use their products, you might want to find another company.

"Getting the right in-ear setup for me was a total game changer! I feel like I can hear everything now so much clearer — more definition and still loud and exciting but keeping things hopefully at a safe level so I can continue to hear for many years to come," James, of My Morning Jacket, says of getting good IEMs. "I highly recommend seeing a good audiologist to get a setup that works best for you."

4. Expect a Learning Curve

If you get new earplugs or IEMs, expect that it will take a while to get used to them. It will take time for them to feel comfortable and for you to get used to hearing sounds at new, lower levels. This is your new normal and your ears and brain (yes, your brain) need time to adjust.

5. Maintain the Rest of Your Health

It might come as a surprise, but maintaining your overall health can go a long way towards protecting your hearing.

More specifically, manage any vascular health issues you might have. According to Santucci, all of the following can contribute to hearing loss: diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking. Malyuk says that many people are surprised to hear that smoking increases your risk of hearing loss.

6. Talk about Protecting Your Hearing

Help change the music culture. Talk with your fellow musicians and colleagues in the industry about the importance of protecting your hearing. Don’t be embarrassed about showing up to shows with earplugs and/or wearing them in your private life. Musicians and music professionals need to look out for each other and support efforts to protect their hearing.

Wilkenfeld gives us the bottom line: "I’ve always wanted to maintain my hearing because it really helps me do what I do."

Hearing loss should no longer be viewed as a badge of honor. It’s not an accomplishment. At best, it can leave you with chronic problems; at worst, it can destroy your career.

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