Musicians’ Hearing Loss and Prevention

Musicians, from classical orchestras to rock groups, are exposed to high decibel ranges creating sounds sufficiently intense to cause sensorineural hearing loss. According to R.T. Sataloff, some hearing loss in musicians may be considered occupational hearing loss, and subsequently may interfere with the musician’s ability to perform the daily tasks of his or her profession.

Musicians suffer not just from hearing loss but also a ringing in their ears and various pitch-perception problems. Music lovers should be modest in the length of time and level of loud music to which they expose their ears. Many performing musicians use in-ear monitors or ear plugs to regulate the levels of sound they absorb onstage while performing.

In-Ear Monitors

In-ear monitors ensure a proper balance of music and monitoring, usually at a much lower level. They are devices used by musicians to listen to music or to a custom mix of vocals and stage instrumentation for live performance or recording studio mixing. They are often custom fitted to an individual’s ears and provide a high level of noise reduction from ambient surroundings. Depending on the quality of the fit and length of the ear canal, a custom fit in-ear monitor will generally provide somewhere between 25 and 35 dB of noise reduction.

How do In-Ear Monitors Work

In-ear monitors are similar to hearing aids in that there is a preamplifier and usually one or two receivers (with associated crossover network). The microphone is replaced by a direct audio input from the sound engineer’s rack. A cable connects the ear monitors either directly to the rack, such as in the case of a drummer who does not need to move around, or via a wireless FM transceiver that allows mobility. The sound engineer and the musician determine the optimal settings of the musical mix. A hearing specialist can provide a musician with a frequency-by-frequency listing of the corrections necessary to obtain a flat response thereby setting optimal equalizer levels.

In addition, if a hearing loss has occurred, level-dependent corrections should also be provided such that the musician can wear the device like a hearing aid (with music input). The level-dependent and frequency-response specifications for hard-of-hearing musicians are obtained in the same way as that of any hearing aid prescription. Ensuring a flat frequency response in the ear of the musician requires some extra calculation.

Calibrating In-Ear Monitors

The calibration technique to ensure a flat response involves the use of a real-ear measurement system and a flat noise source such as a good quality white noise. Some audiometers generate a fairly flat white noise whereas others do not. A number of software programs can generate a perfectly flat noise source and this could be recorded onto tape or CD and fed directly into the ear monitor. The input cable for the in-ear monitor can be plugged into this white noise source via the audiometer or computer, and a white noise input can be generated at about a 70-dB audiometer dial reading. A probe tube can be placed in between the in-ear monitor and the ear canal wall in the normal fashion, and the output in that individual’s ear can be measured. Deviations from a flat response can be noted and provided to the musician to share with the sound engineer. For example, if there was an 8-dB resonance at 2000 Hz, the sound engineer could attenuate this frequency region by 8 dB.

The real-ear measurement system should first be configured to receive external stimuli. This can be accomplished by disabling both the reference microphone and the speaker. Various manufacturers of real-ear measurement systems have different methods of accomplishing this, but they usually involve setting the stimulus level to 0 dB or turning the reference microphone to off. Performing this 2-minute calibration ensures that any subsequent changes to the music are because of the musician’s personal preferences rather than any limitations of the in-ear monitors.

Ear Plugs 

Musicians who do not need amplified playback in their ears may benefit from custom-fitted musician ear plugs. These are non-electrical ear plugs fitted with custom filters to make specific sounds in the music spectrum softer, while not compromising the overall musical experience. Ordinary ear plugs cut off high-frequency sounds, making voices muffled and the timbre of music dull. The natural sound from musician ear plugs solves this problem by reducing the volume you hear without distorting the sounds.

At Apex Audiology, we can custom make and fit both musician ear plugs and in-ear monitors catering to each musician’s personal needs. We understand your artistic needs and are committed to helping you attain the sound and performance you want. Call to schedule an appointment today at (719) 247-9000.