Minimizing the Risk of Longterm Hearing Loss

Mike Lawson • Archives • June 4, 2008

Share This:

If we were to walk down the sidewalk and encounter a construction worker using a jackhammer, most of us would either put our fingers in our ears or walk to the other side of the street to escape the noise. The volume of a circular saw ranges between 90-100 decibels, a backhoe, 85-95 decibels, and a lawnmower 90 decibels. Unfortunately, any musician who has had the bell of a trumpet near the back of their head may have been exposed to over 110 db (or up to 140 at five inches away) a level similar to that of a jackhammer. This volume can be at the threshold of pain. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders suggests that, “30 million Americans are regularly exposed to harmful sound levels, and over 28 million suffer from some level of hearing loss.” With music students being exposed to high volume levels with their iPods or other mp3 players, as well as in the band room and on the field, there could be a real danger of future hearing loss.

When band members are practicing on the field or in the band room, there is no doubt that the sound pressure levels can become dangerously high. We estimate that there are between 1.5 and 2 million students in school band programs across the USA who could be at risk of longterm hearing loss as part of cumulative exposure. According to the New York Times, April 20, 2008 edition, in London a piece of music called “State of Siege” by composer Dror Feiler was dropped from a scheduled performance due to the average noise level of the piece. Evidently, the “average noise level was 97.4 decibels, just below the level of a pneumatic drill and in violation of new European noise-at-work limits.” Due to the inordinate volume of the piece, the world premier with the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra was dropped.

The difficult aspect of musicians wearing hearing protection is the ability of the player to hear all of the nuances of tone quality, intonation, balance, frequency distribution, and personal volume of their instrument. There are professional orchestras that utilize sound panels to minimize the impact of the louder instruments that are behind other musicians, but the cost would be prohibitive for most school music programs. Additionally, there are some high-tech, high-cost hearing protection products that some symphony musicians use to protect themselves from hearing damage. However, there are some more reasonably priced earplugs that are available from musical instrument dealers that do offer protection while maintaining some qualities that allow the musician to hear reasonably well. This is certainly a consideration for school music programs, especially for percussionists, brass players, and those who sit in front of them.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!