Popularity, fortune, and screaming fans — these are a few of the words and phrases you’d select to summarize the life of a professional musician. In spite of this, what you probably wouldn’t take into account is “hearing loss” or “tinnitus,” the not-so-enjoyable side-effects of all that celebrity, fortune, and screaming. The unfortunate irony is, a musician’s hearing is what is most susceptible to harm from the performance of their trade.

In fact, musicians are close to four times more likely to suffer from noise-induced hearing loss compared with the average individual, as stated by scientists at the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology. The research also found that professional musicians are close to 57% more likely to experience tinnitus — a condition connected with a constant ringing in the ears.

The culprit: repeated subjection to loud noise. Over time, very loud sound will irreparably cause harm to the hair cells of the inner ear, which are the sensory receptors responsible for transmitting sound to the brain. Like an ample patch of grass worn out from frequent trampling, the hair cells can in a similar way be destroyed from repeated overexposure to loud noise – the dissimilarity, of course, being that you can’t plant new hair cells.

Just how loud are rock concerts?

To explain the issue, hearing loss starts with consistent exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels (decibels being a unit used to calculate loudness). That may not mean very much to you, until you look at the decibel levels connected with typical events:

  • Whisper at 6 feet: 30 decibels (dB)

  • Common dialogue at 3 feet: 60 – 65 (dB)

  • Motorcycle: 100 dB

  • Front row at a rock concert: 120 to 150 dB

In non-technical terms, rock concerts are literally ear-splittingly loud, and continued unprotected exposure can cause some serious harm, which, regrettably, many notable musicians have recently attested to.

Chris Martin, the lead singer for the music group Coldplay, has dealt with with Tinnitus for ten years. Martin said::

“Looking after your ears is unfortunately something you don’t think about until there’s a problem. I’ve had tinnitus for about 10 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. Now we always use moulded filter plugs, or in-ear monitors, to try and protect our ears. You CAN use industrial headphones, but that looks strange at a party.”

Other celebrated musicians that suffer from hearing loss or tinnitus include Neil Young, Ozzy Osbourne, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Bono, Sting, Ryan Adams, and more, many of which indicate regret that they hadn’t done more to protect their ears throughout their careers. According to Lars Ulrich from Metallica:

“If you get a scratch on your nose, in a week that’ll be gone. When you scratch your hearing or damage your hearing, it doesn’t come back. I try to point out to younger kids … once your hearing is gone, it’s gone, and there’s no real remedy.”

How musicians, and fans, can protect their ears

While musicians are at greater risk for developing hearing loss or tinnitus, the risk can be greatly lessened by using protective measures. Due to the specialized needs of musicians — and the importance of maintaining the detAs a result of the unique requirements of musicians — and the significance of maintaining the fine details of sound — the initial step is to make an appointment with an hearing specialist.

Here’s a classic error: musicians will often wait to see an audiologist until they experience one or more of these signs or symptoms:

  • A ringing or buzzing sound in the ears

  • Any pain or discomfort in the ears

  • Difficulty understanding speech

  • Difficulty following conversations in the presence of background noise

The trouble is, when these symptoms are present, the harm has already been done. Therefore, the best thing a musician can do to avoid long-term, permanent hearing loss is to schedule an appointment with an audiologist before symptoms are present.

If you’re a musician, an audiologist can recommend custom musicians’ plugs or in-ear-monitors that will protect your hearing without compromising your musical performance. As a musician, you have distinctive needs for hearing and hearing protection, and audiologists or hearing specialists are the specialists specifically trained to provide this custom protection.

Additionally, keep in mind that it’s not only musicians at risk: concert-goers are just as susceptible. So the next time you’re front row at a rock show, know that 120 decibels of hair-cell-killing volume is pumping directly from the loudspeakers right into your ears.