Artist Hearing Health: Protecting Your Ears When Everything Goes to 11

Ron Hart / May 31, 2022
A Manhattan-based ear specialist with over two decades of experience treating musicians lays out key strategies for keeping your hearing healthy without losing the groove.

Musicians facing volume-induced hearing loss aren’t just a rock ‘n’ roll fable from back in the day. In recent years, Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, will.i.am, and Coldplay’s Chris Martin are among the many artists that have discussed their struggles with tinnitus and other hearing issues.

Greg Anderson, whose band Sun0)) is known for extremely loud shows, told Spotify for Artists his hearing is, “not the best. We use very professional hearing protection. Molded earplugs and 25 db filters and things like that. It’s kind of one of the consequences of doing this."

So what can artists dancing on the edge of fidelity do to preserve hearing for years to come? New York-based Otolaryngologist Dr. Lloyd Loft, who has treated an impressive number of Grammy-winning acts in his decades of treating singers and musicians, shares some key tips. Hint: earplugs are just the beginning.

Get Tested

“Anyone who is serious about a career in the music industry [should] get a baseline hearing test” as early as possible, says Loft. “Get one so you know as you embark on your journey what your hearing level is, because if it changes over time it can be monitored.”

Mind Your dBs Everywhere

According to the Hearing Health Foundation, professional musicians are nearly four times more prone to developing noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) than others, and they are nearly 60% percent more susceptible to tinnitus. Additionally, hearing loss can affect a musician’s ability to identify pitch, not just volume or clarity. Plus, the CDC explains that loud sounds like music have a cumulative effect on hearing.

“OSHA, who handles all of the occupational safety standards, has a scale for how long you’re allowed to be exposed to certain intensities of sound in a workplace environment,” Loft explains. “Here’s an important thing to realize: You can maintain exposure to a low or moderately loud sound for a longer period of time and do the same amount of damage that you would with an intensely loud sound for a moderately short period of time.”

Everyone knows concerts are loud — the World Health Organization just lowered the “safe” threshold for live shows to just 100 decibels — but don’t forget practice and headphone volume too. Based on a study by the CDC, the maximum volume for your average listening device clocks in around 105 to 110 decibels, which will cause damage to your ear in five minutes when played through headphones.

Level Up Your Ear Plugs

While “stopping off at the local pharmacy or chain store and getting some foam earplugs is perfectly acceptable” for the casual music fan, Dr. Loft says musicians at every level should care just as much about investing in optimum hearing protection as you would a new guitar or microphone. For many, in-ear monitors (IEMs) are a good start.

“The problem with musicians is that they need to hear what they are playing,” he said. “They need proper auditory input to make decisions about when to come in and go out; when to get loud and fade. And the thing is, it’s a trade-off — the better your sound protection, the less you’re going to hear. So the nice thing about in-ear monitors is that when you get it done well and it has a really good acoustic seal, you can use it both to protect you from dangerous noises but also you can hear what you need to hear.”

A good IEM is also optimal for musicians whose hearing damage has already altered their ability to discern pitch, giving them the right level of protection without any further impact to be able to isolate certain tones or frequencies in a mix.

In terms of expense, he adds, “These aren’t tools for the everyday person. They are expensive pieces of audio engineering when they are done right. If you’re playing music or you’re mixing music regularly, I think you have to invest more [in] professional sound protection.”

Mind Your Wax

Though it’s less of a concern, Loft says musicians should also be cognizant of the amount of earwax they produce. “It’s just a natural secretion and some people make a lot of it and some don’t. But if you do make a lot of earwax, you should have it removed. Especially for musicians, because you can’t have properly fitting in-ear monitors if your ears are filled up with wax.”

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the person interviewed and do not reflect any policy or position of Spotify.

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Ron Hart / May 31, 2022
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