All musicians should use hearing protection. This recommendation applies even to musicians and music lovers who currently do not experience any hearing difficulties. For all musicians—pianists, singers, and flutists, professional and amateur alike—the sense that they rely on the most to create music, their hearing, ought to be protected.
As human beings, coming to terms with the dangers of noise exposure is difficult because we instinctively enjoy noise’s energizing and even comforting qualities. The thumping bass and urgent treble of music in an exercise class urges us to burn. The communal, deafening roar at a soccer stadium reassures us that we are part of a group. The crescendo of the symphony in the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth exhilarates us. We tell ourselves that the noise we experience every day–pop music blaring in the mall, or a train or subway car screeching into the station, steel wheels grinding against the track–is short-lived, not sufficiently prolonged to affect our hearing.
In fact, excessive noise, ubiquitous in our society, insidiously eats away at our hearing, sometimes not showing its effects for decades, even for people who currently experience no hearing loss. The Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) helped sensitize me to the dangers of noise. As a board member, I governed not only HHF’s research efforts to cure hearing loss, but also our hearing loss prevention program.
With my newfound knowledge, I embarked upon a personal program of hearing protection: I purchased a pair of silicone musicians’ earplugs, designed to lower noise without creating distorted or smothered sounds—many musicians wear them while rehearsing. Although a snug fit—the earplugs are customized to prevent harmful noise from seeping into my ear canal—they are surprisingly comfortable.
My earplugs contain filters for different levels of noise protection. I purchased two sets of filters, one that dampens noise by nine decibels, which I tend to wear most often, and a second that blocks all sound, useful for very harmful environments such as sports stadiums, where noise levels can crescendo to greater than 125 decibels, causing in some cases immediate hearing loss.
I wear the musicians earplugs whenever I want to protect my hearing in a discrete manner, such as a loud concert. I also find them very handy at the beauty salon, when my stylist blows out my hair, in order to protect myself from the hair dryer’s deafening decibels.
However, the process of removing my hearing aids, storing them in a padded pouch, and then slipping in earplugs can be time-consuming. Now I also own a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
I found that I can wear the headphones over my hearing aids to block out unwanted noise without experiencing any annoying feedback from my hearing aids. Muting the loud thrum of tires on asphalt while on a road trip can be particularly useful for making a mobile call.
For airplane flights, I take out my hearing aids and simply wear the noise-cancelling headphones. I feel considerably more refreshed after a long flight now that I don’t have to subject myself to the jet engine’s roar, which can easily create a soundscape of 90 decibels or more inside the plane.
I carry the headphones and the musicians earplugs with me at all times because I can’t always anticipate when I will encounter loud noise. Much to my children’s consternation, when we are walking down the street, I have been known to whip out the headphones at the first sound of an ambulance’s insidious whine. I’m determined to protect the hearing that I’ve got.
The Difference Between Protection and Amplification
People with hearing loss in particular need to understand that noise protection is different from amplification. Amplification, in other words making sounds louder and more discernable, whether from hearing aids or personal hearing devices, is crucial for people with hearing loss to be able to function in society. Yet noise protection is just as important.
In my experience, some audiologists are more attuned to noise protection than others. As much as I rely on my current audiologist, I felt she was not sufficiently concerned with noise protection. I researched the topic on my own. I located a Sensaphonics Gold Audiologist. She took impressions of my ear canals, and the company mailed me the musicians earplugs within a few weeks.
Whether or not you currently have hearing loss, protect your ability to transform notes on a page into music. Invest in hearing protection and wear it.