The recent award success of Sound of Metal, in which Riz Ahmed plays a drummer who suffers hearing loss, has made many musicians aware of the dangers that performing music can pose to their hearing and health.
Though Ahmed's specific condition is unclear in the film, tinnitus is one of the most common causes of hearing loss, especially for performing musicians. (If you're curious as to some musicians with tinnitus, check out this blog post)
As reported by the Hearing Health Foundation, musicians are 400% more likely to have a hearing loss and 57% more likely to have tinnitus than the general public.
But what exactly is tinnitus, and what can a performer do to prevent it? We reached out to an expert and a musician living with tinnitus to learn more.
While there isn't a single trigger for tinnitus, Dr. Hope Lanter, lead audiologist at hear.com, says common causes include trauma to the ear or long term damage that develops over time. Tinnitus can also be a side effect of some medications.
“Trauma can be a single external event like an injury or constant exposure to loud noises. Some common culprits include gunfire, explosions, and crashes,” she says. “Similar to trauma, long-term degradation can occur from exposure to noises. The difference, however, is that the noises are less severe and over the course of a lifetime. For instance, a musician playing without earplugs could find their hearing being slowly chipped away.”
Curtis Forbes, Founder & CEO of Forbes Music Company, has been performing all over the world for more than 20 years. "I currently suffer from ringing and mild tinnitus, as a result of my long career in music. It can be a struggle at times," he admitted. "I personally have stopped listening to loud music and limit the amount of time I can wear headphones, and I don't perform often anymore."
So when should you start wearing hearing protection? Now. That said, younger musicians may not understand the consequences of long term exposure to loud music.
Forbes advises everyone in the scene to protect their hearing by limiting the volume and duration of extreme volumes, wearing music earplugs at gigs and at venues, and limiting the volume on personal audio devices, like headphones. “Often, the listening experience can be better with volume limiting and noise-reducing earplugs that can improve the clarity and frequencies of the music.”
As for what to look for with noise-reducing headphones and ear plugs, Forbes recommends making sure you choose earplugs for concerts with strong attenuation, good sound reproduction, and limited frequency exaggeration, like EarPeace MUSIC PRO.
Harea Band guitarist pictured with EarPeace MUSIC PRO ear plugs.
In addition to proper gear and limiting the volume, Dr. Lanter recommends that artists should know when to give their ears a rest. “Plan to take a break after a particularly loud set or even on the hour. Walk away and move to a quiet spot where you’ll be able to rest up for 5-10 minutes before heading back."
Dr. Lanter also suggests giving yourself a hearing detox a day before playing. "Commit yourself to a day of silence where you can rest your mind and eardrums," she says.
Here are some additional steps you might consider after you've been diagnosed, according to Dr. Lanter.
- If you have hearing loss from tinnitus, the best way to treat it is by wearing hearing aids. Hearing aids work by reintroducing those sounds you’re having trouble hearing back into your brain. And as the sounds return, your brain shuts off the internal amplifier that is causing the ringing. Approximately 60% of the people who have tinnitus and wear hearing aids experience significant relief.
- Masking method is essentially listening to sounds that distract you from the ringing or buzzing produced by tinnitus. For instance, if tinnitus is keeping you from getting a good night’s rest, you can put a fan in your room and the sound it makes will help mask the ringing.
- A lot of research has been conducted on the topic of tinnitus, and one of the key findings is that stress can trigger tinnitus. When you’re stressed out, there’s a tendency to perceive the ringing much louder than it actually is. So, what are you supposed to do when Tinnitus flares up? Lower your stress levels.
Warning signs of tinnitus might include hearing unusual sounds like ringing, hissing, buzzing, or whistling. It can be intermittent or constant, but it's critical to consult with a physician as soon as you notice it.
“Once diagnosed, you should immediately take steps to prevent further hearing loss or more severe Tinnitus,” says Forbes. “By taking the steps to mitigate further damage, you may be able to preserve what you have.”
Are you due for a check up? Adults age 18-40 should get their hearing tested every 3-5 years, but musicians should get checked at least once a year.