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Technology: Hearing Loss

Marc Jacoby • Technology • May 19, 2014

Protect Your Ears Without Losing the Sound

 

About a year ago, my family had had it with me always asking them to repeat themselves whenever we were talking together. While I thought it funny to learn how to say “What?” in multiple languages, I brushed off their complaints until a recent visit with my doctor; without prompting, she asked if I had trouble hearing her questions. That’s when I decided to act.

Now, I’m a drummer by training and grew up playing in marching band and drum and bugle corps, not to mention regular jamming in garage bands with my friends and going out to clubs and concerts. Then followed years of teaching drum corps where we would rehearse in indoor spaces such as high school gyms or auditoriums, especially in the winter months.

Imagine the sound of 60 or more bugles and 30 drummers in very small spaces. I reveled in the massive sound! To see what I mean by “massive,” check out this clip of the 1988 Madison Scout’s rendition of “Malagueña”:  

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On top of this, I played in salsa and Latin music clubs for a number of years where there are generally two to three percussionists with multiple cowbells being played at the same time. My ears have taken a real beating.

When I finally went for a hearing test, my audiologist confirmed that I had a severe drop off in hearing frequencies above 1,000 Hz and recommended getting hearing aids. Fortunately, having decent insurance, I was able to choose a fairly expensive model that claimed to have very natural sound. But let me tell you, they in no way sound “natural.” The sound can be best explained as “tinny,” as if the treble control on your stereo has been turned up (which, in essence, is what they do) and you’re listening on tiny old speakers. While they have improved my ability to hear and isolate people’s speaking voices, listening to music now sounds artificial and compressed, not the least bit satisfying. I learned too late how important it is to protect your hearing.

Our ears are our hearing machinery and they’ve developed an ability to respond to vibrations and pressure changes in the air around us (the term used to describe this is called “mechanosensation,” the conversion of mechanical stimuli into neural signals). And like machinery, if you don’t take care of it, it will wear out faster. As I learned first-hand, this can lead to a reduction of the ability to hear higher frequency sounds or even worse, greater hearing loss and possibly developing the constant ringing in your ear, which is also known as tinnitus. So, let’s look at some ways we can utilize technology to help protect our hearing machine and, hopefully, our students’ hearing health.

 

Hearing Protection Tools

How do we protect our ears while playing in an ensemble? Earplugs, of course! Whether it’s marching band, indoor percussion ensemble, jazz big band, or even a symphony orchestra, earplugs are essential to maintaining hearing health. There seems to be a growing consensus that young people are put at risk of hearing damage simply by the nature of many of today’s school music activities. And like my younger self, high school percussion students might be in the worst of positions. They’re not the only ones affected, though – don’t forget about the players who sit in front of the percussion section in many ensembles.

Today’s student drummers could be exposed to the loud sustained volumes of marching percussion for more than just a few weeks of marching band every fall. With indoor marching percussion and increased summer programs, student drummers can be involved in drum line activities almost year-round. Neil Larivee, director of education at  Vic Firth, makes the analogy between the requirements that are placed on students participating in school sports and music. School sports programs require the use of helmets, athletic supporters and protective cups, shin guards, and so on. So why shouldn’t percussionists in a marching band at least wear ear protection? In an email, Larivee put it this way: “No one loves wearing any of these items. But if we, as teachers make it a no-choice scenario, like ‘the cup,’ then we will be sure to be proactively take care of our kids’ hearing, for a lifetime.” But is it as simple as stuffing cotton in your ears?

Well, stuffing cotton is certainly better than nothing, but like my hearing aids, it’s probably going to be unsatisfying. It all has to do with frequency and amplitude and how to filter one without harming the other. Remembering back to your school science class, frequency is the speed in which an object vibrates causing the air molecules around it to move. These changes in air pressure are what cause our eardrums and the tiny hair cells inside our ear to vibrate giving us the ability to determine pitch (or lack of it). The various frequencies of an instrument or group of instruments, the harmonic spectrum, are what help us determine what we’re listening to. Is it a flute or a chain saw?

Amplitude is the magnitude or intensity of these vibrations. It produces the effect we perceive as volume. The intensity of the vibrations, called the sound pressure level, is measured in units called “decibels.” This is accomplished by creating a baseline (0dB) that reflects the softest sound that we can hear. This scale continues with normal talking measured at about 50dB all the way up to what is called the “threshold of pain,” about 130dB. It’s this upper range that has the ability over time to damage the mechanics of our ears.

Getting back to the cotton-stuffing scenario, the trick is to limit the damages that high volume levels can inflict without limiting or adversely changing the various volumes of the harmonic spectrum that give a sound its unique characteristics. If you simply stuff cotton in your ears you will reduce the overall volume but it will be done unevenly over the entire frequency spectrum thereby causing some frequencies to be attenuated (the technical term for reduction) more than others. In fact, you can give your students the experience of impaired hearing like my own by having them put cotton in their ears. This is the same with many off the shelf earplugs that are found at the local pharmacy. What is required is a specially designed earplug that reduces the overall decibel level across the entire frequency spectrum.

There are basically two options for this type of earplug. Your decision will be primarily based on what your budget can handle. Both will do the same thing. The first is to have custom earplugs fitted by an audiologist. It involves them getting an impression of your ear canal so that the fit is exact to your ear. Don’t worry; it’s relatively quick and painless. My earplugs even came with two different filter elements that allow me to vary the amount of attenuation. If I’m playing with a jazz trio at a small party I may not need as much filtering as I would need when coaching a big band at the university. As I’m done growing, these should last me the rest of my career. A school-aged musician may need to have new ones fitted depending on how much they grow.

The other option is to purchase a growing selection of off the shelf models. Etymotic, Hearos, and Mack’s are just a few of the manufacturers of high fidelity earplugs. Some come with removable filters like the custom option. Hearos offers a “High Fidelity” model and one called the “Rock N Roll Series”. Like in the movie, This is Spinal Tap, maybe they go to 11!

 

Headphones and Earbuds

Finally, the increased usage of headphones with personal music players puts young people at greater risk of hearing damage. This is especially true with the use of earbuds that don’t block out the sound around them, thereby causing the listener to increase their music’s volume. They can “drown out the world,” so to speak. The National Institute of Health (NIH) does make some recommendations, first and foremost is to limit the daily amount of exposure to high levels of volume through headphone usage. They also suggest that a gauge of maximum volume is when the person standing next to you can hear the music coming out of your headphones. (Check out “Hearing loss and music” at goo.gl/tGRdBA for more.)

So, are you going to help your students keep their ears protected? Want to know more about this? Check out the Etymotic web site for more information. They’ve produced some very informative materials that you can share with your students, parents, and fellow teachers and administrators. Or, contact a local audiologist and invite them to speak to your students. I’m sure most would be happy to share information about this subject. What you can do right away is model best practices for your students. Start wearing earplugs yourself and protect your own ears.

 

Dr. Marc Jacoby is an associate professor of Music at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where he serves as Jazz Studies coordinator and teaches in the Applied Music and Music Education programs. Jacoby is the co-creator of and a contributor to TheMusicInteractive.com, a website that distributes music games and activities designed for interactive whiteboards and mobile devices. In addition to his own titles, Jacoby has developed educational multimedia including games for Yamaha/PlayinTime Productions, Mark Wessels Publications, and CD-ROMs for Rowloff Productions. Dr. Jacoby is a certified Apple Pro Apps trainer, an artist/clinician for the Yamaha Corporation and Vic Firth, Inc., a Sibelius Ambassador, and has served on the Educational Advisory Committee for Latin Percussion, Inc.

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