The sound of the alarm clock buzzing the morning after a lengthy rehearsal or a night at the local club cuts through the early morning calm. Then you realize it’s not the alarm clock ringing – it’s your ears.
The sensation of ringing or buzzing (the medical term is tinnitus) in the ear after exposure to loud music is one that most rock musicians and fans have endured at least once.
Even those who prefer other types of music may have the same experience after riding the subway, or walking by a jackhammer or a shrieking car alarm. Just living in the modern world we are increasingly bombarded by grating sounds that can take a toll on one’s ears, but musicians place themselves at risk by prolonged and repeated exposure to amplified music.
Numerous rock legends have come forward with stories of hearing loss as a result of their practices before they realized that their ears and hearing were not invincible. Musicians as stylistically divergent as Ray Charles and Ted Nugent have gone public with their personal tales of hearing loss. Pete Townshend of The Who is an adamant supporter of the need for more education about hearing loss. His exposure to the amplified sounds of The Who permanently effected his future in music. “I have very severe hearing damage, manifested as tinnitus, ringing in the ears,” he says. “It hurts, and it’s frustrating when little children talk to you and you can’t hear them.”
Although anyone who plays with a band or frequents noisy venues can fall victim to tinnitus and hearing damage, drummers are particularly predisposed to encounter trouble with tinnitus. Drummers, and other band members, often complain that it is the high-end sounds of the cymbals and snare that have a noticeable, negative impact on their hearing.
It is the penetrating qualities of these instruments that make them most damaging to the sensitive ear. Repeated exposure, close proximity to the high-end culprits, and the drummer's inability to move away from the monitors during a set present a set of hazardous conditions for the ear. With all these factors, drummers should be on the alert for the warning signs of hearing loss.
Unlike other forms of bodily injury, hearing impairment is usually painless. It is also gradual, allowing those at risk to ignore the danger signals until permanent damage has occurred. Lars Ulrich, drummer for Metallica and a vocal supporter of the need for education about hearing loss, stressed this often unknown fact about the irreparable nature of this affliction. “Hearing is not like when you bite your nail off, and it grows back six weeks later,” he says. “Hearing is one of the few things that will not come back.”
Don’t give up all hope if your ears have rung all day after a particularly amplified session – chances are your hearing is not permanently damaged. Occasional exposure to extremely loud sounds won’t usually result in irreversible loss. The hair cells of the inner ear that perceive sound waves are actually fairly resilient when given a chance to spring back into the normal, upright position. Unfortunately, it is the repeated exposure to harmful sound levels that many active musicians encounter that can make even the hardiest hair cells literally stiffen and die. The receptor hair cells become brittle after frequent encounters with a barrage of sound, especially at higher frequencies. The muffled hearing and ringing that could once be relieved with a day’s rest are now permanent reminders that one has experienced more than the ears can tolerate.
Ears do give us warning signs that permanent hearing loss could be on its way if we are not careful. The most common sign of overexposure to dangerously loud noise is ringing or buzzing in the ears, the condition technically referred to as tinnitus. Tinnitus is the brain’s interpretation of a shock to the auditory system. The degree of tinnitus varies widely. Depending on the individual, it can worsen over time if repeated exposure to damaging decibel levels continues without protection. Tinnitus may manifest itself as a “white noise” hiss, only audible in complete silence, but it can also go to the other extreme, rising up to levels up to 70 decibels (dB), a piercing scream in the ears that never stops. There are various levels of annoyance and discomfort between these two extremes, but any awareness of ringing or buzzing is a sign that one’s hearing has been damaged, and that it can and will get worse if ignored and unprotected exposure to noise continues.
Hearing impairment is not the only way overexposure to loud music works against the physical well-being of the musician. That which has a negative effect on the ears can be transferred into the rest of body’s nervous system. This has shown up in recent studies where researchers discovered that there is a connection between repeated exposure to loud noise and a variety of physical disorders. Chronic headaches, insomnia sleep disruption, ulcers and high blood pressure are some of the ailments linked to exposure to high levels of noise, and although it may be difficult to exclude the role of other factors in these symptoms, it is logical to conclude that severe stress to one area of the body can lead to stress that is exhibited throughout the body.
The ear of the musician is as valuable as the skill acquired by years of practice on a particular instrument, and one should be alert to other danger signs, which may be more subtle than the hum of tinnitus. The first stages of noise-induced hearing loss are often revealed by the inability to detect sounds in the high-frequency range (those that cause the most damage to begin with). High pitches in music played quietly may be inaudible. But the symptom that most often provokes alarm is the difficulty in picking out specific words in normal conversation, especially in an environment with background noise. If you find yourself asking people to repeat themselves on a regular basis, you may want to assess your personal risk of hearing loss and the steps that can be taken to prevent the condition from becoming worse. Many professional musicians have taken steps to protect themselves after experiencing hearing loss of varying degrees. To do this, they have had to compromise their exposure to what is arguably the root appeal behind rock and roll – the powerful driving feel of amplified music – and their ability to hear any music in the future. When the discussion of hearing protection arises, the use of earplugs is usually dismissed as something that diminishes the experience of playing with the band and to the audience. Ulrich comments, “If you can’t feel what’s coming back from the audience, that can give you a really distorted sense of how you’re playing,” which is something no musician wants to experience.