Listen Up or Lose It: How and Why to Prevent Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

July 14, 2016

From the tunes blaring through your earbuds, to the roar of traffic, airplanes and other ambient noises, to the blast of sound at concerts, parties, movies, theaters and even retail outlets, the message is loud and clear: we live in an increasingly noisy world. Though it's popular to "turn it up," consistent overexposure to loud noise is damaging. Approximately 15% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have hearing loss that may have been caused by noise exposure,1 and music creators are four times more likely to suffer from hearing damage that's 100% preventable.2 Musicians are almost 60% more likely to suffer from tinnitus,3 the sensation of hearing phantom sound commonly described as "ringing" and attributed to damaging noise exposure.

No matter their preferred style and genre, all music creators and fans can be harmed by noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Musicians have a much higher rate of hearing issues because damage results from sound volume and duration.4 According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), hearing loss begins with long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels. As a symphonic orchestra reaches 120 decibels to 137 decibels and a full-throttle rock concert tops 150 decibels, there is an obvious problem. Loud sounds can damage microscopic hair cells that line the inner ear, known as stereocilia. Those hair cells don’t grow back, so the loss is permanent, according to the NIDCD. In many people, this leads to muffled or distorted sounds or the need to use hearing aids to amplify sound. 

Ironically, NIHL is totally preventable with proper hearing protection, yet many music creators are either unaware of preventive measures, or choose not to take the necessary steps. Some of the inaction stems from the cultures within musical genres. Band and orchestral artists have similar rates of hearing loss due to consistent overexposure to noise in rehearsals and concerts, yet band members are significantly less likely to perceive risk or use protective equipment. Among band types, a 2016 study found that pipe band musicians had the highest incidence of hearing loss, greatest awareness of risk, and highest rates of earplug and screen use. In contrast, brass band players demonstrated poor risk awareness and a reluctance to use protective equipment.5 When it comes to rock, a 2015 study found hearing loss in 37.8% of rockers. Among Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, 60% have some sort of hearing loss, according to Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers (H.E.A.R.). 


"Looking after your ears is unfortunately something you don't think about until there's a problem. I've had tinnitus for about ten years, and since I started protecting my ears it hasn't got any worse – touch wood. But I wish I'd thought about it earlier." – PRS/ASCAP songwriter Chris Martin, Coldplay

The key step music professionals must take to protect their hearing is to wear protective earplugs. The use of hearing protection, in particular custom-fitted earplugs, has a preventive effect, but very few people apply them consistently. To raise awareness for hearing health and change the culture of the industry, several A-list rockers have begun to publically advocate for hearing health in the music industry, including Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Chris Martin, Ozzy Osbourne, Paul Stanley, Sting, Pete Townshend and Neil Young. Organizations such as H.E.A.R. provide free earplugs at rock concerts and festivals for musicians and fans.

Top Five Ways to Protect Your Hearing

  1. Avoid prolonged exposure to loud noises
  2. Turn down the volume – headphones, mix quietly in the studio, etc
  3. Wear good quality ear plugs
  4. Use noise-canceling headphones.
  5. Get regular hearing checkups

Organizations such as H.E.A.R. target musicians and fans in the specific genre of rock, but MusiCares,® a charity of The Recording Academy®, works with all music people, regardless of genre or occupation within the industry, to ensure their hearing safety and wellbeing through preemptive measures and free treatment. The nonprofit organization hosts hearing clinics that offer screenings, education, and fittings for custom ear plugs free of charge. More than 60 hearing clinics were held in 55 cities across the country over the course of MusiCares' current fiscal year. MusiCares has also collaborated with The Recording Academy’s P&E wing to provide additional focus on the hearing issues specific to producers and engineers. In addition, this spring, the rock band Pearl Jam developed a unique partnership with MusiCares to provide custom branded ear plugs to attendees at each of their national spring tour dates.

The MusiCares hearing clinics are part of the organization's Healthy Essentials clinics, which allow members of the music community to receive a full spectrum of primary and preventative services provided by medical professionals on a regular basis. The Healthy Essentials initiative encompasses everything from flu shot clinics and dental care to hearing health programs. For music people interested in attending a hearing health or another clinic, check the MusiCares website for upcoming events. Interested participants must have at least five years music industry experience, and complete a brief application to qualify through MusiCares. Clinics are held across the United States at various times throughout the year.

[1] Prell, C. (2012). "Perspectives on Noise-Induced Hearing Loss." In Noise-Induced Hearing Loss- Scientific Advances. New York, NY: Springer.

[2]Schink, T., Kreutz, G., Busch, V., Pigeot, I., & Ahrens, W. (2014). "Incidence and relative risk of hearing disorders in professional musicians." Occupational and environmental medicine, oemed-2014.

[3] Blackwell, D., Lucas, J., & Clarke, T. (2014). Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Adults: National Health Interview Survey.

[4] Kardous, C., Themann, C., Morata, T., & Reynolds, J. (2015). Reducing the Risk of Hearing Disorders Among Musicians.

[5] O'Brien, I., and E. F. Beach. 2016. "Hearing loss, earplug use, and attitudes to hearing protection among non-orchestral ensemble musicians." Journal of the Audio Engineering Society 64 (3): 132-7.