Loud music and hearing loss
We are becoming more and more vulnerable to hearing loss due to listening to music too loudly and for long periods of time, either through headphones or in music venues. Research conducted by the University Medical Centre Utrecht suggests that the frequency of hearing loss in young people has increased over the last two decades.
Of course, turning the volume up on our favourite song or listening to our favourite band live are parts of the joys of life, and we wouldn’t want you to miss out on those. However, it’s important to understand the risks that loud music has on hearing so that you can continue to enjoy music for many years to come.
How loud music damages your ears?
Back in ‘how hearing works’ we explain that the sensory hair cells in the cochlea are very sensitive and fragile. In addition to damaging the hair cells, noise can harm the auditory nerve, which is responsible for carrying sound information to the brain.
Leading research suggests that if the hair cells are damaged, the nerve cells in the brain (neurons) begin looking for electrical signals that aren’t being received by the ear and this results in them becoming hyperactive. This hyperactivity is suggested to be the cause of tinnitus.
Hearing loss because of loud music is irreversible if there is damage to the cochlea or auditory nerve. But, some types of hearing loss are temporary.
Hearing loss after a festival
Speakers at a festival typically emit sounds at 110 decibels, which exceeds the 85 decibel safe listening limit. Permanent hearing loss from loud music is called ‘acoustic trauma’ and both musicians and audience members are at risk.
Some mild hearing loss can be experienced after a festival, with the predominant symptom being ringing in the ears. Other symptoms include not being able to hear a soft spoken conversation, and sounds being more muffled than usual. This type of hearing loss is temporary, but it can take a few hours up to a few days to recover.
Hearing loss after a gig
As with festivals, musicians’ use speakers that emit sounds of 110 decibels or more. And unlike festivals, gigs are performed in enclosed areas, which can make the noise levels more intense.
Researchers estimate that the volume of outdoor music venues can be between 90-100 decibels, whereas indoor venues are closer to 110 dB. Plus, the noise from the music is combined with noise from the crowd - not to mention your friend trying to shout something in your ear.
There are many different types of hearing protection you can use for gigs and events.
Experiencing temporary hearing loss after a gig is normal. You may also experience ringing in your ears, which can last up to three days after the gig. If your hearing loss is prolonged or accompanied by other symptoms, such as ear ache, seek advice from a professional.
What is a safe volume to listen to music?
Some devices used at concerts are able to play music over 120 decibels. While this may be impressive, this level of noise is dangerous. Experts recommend that if you’re listening to music, it should be no louder than 85 decibels, and you shouldn’t listen to it for longer than 8 hours.
Taking regular breaks from listening to loud music is important, as this gives the hair cells in the cochlea a chance to recover.
Hearing for musicians
Being in the audience is one thing, but playing music for long hours every day and performing multiple concerts is another. Musicians also rely on their hearing for their living and art. So, hearing care for musicians is paramount. The best way for musicians to protect themselves against hearing damage is by wearing musician’s earplugs, which go straight into the ear canal and protect musicians from loud band sounds or sounds from the crowd. They work by dampening and evenly distributing sound waves (of all frequencies) which stop the cochlea from being over-stimulated or ‘flattened’.
Did you know?
While your hearing may return a day or two later, your hearing may not have ‘recovered’. In nearly all cases of noise-induced hearing loss, repeated, small amounts of damage lead to a bigger problem later on.
Tips on how to listen to music safely
To reduce the negative effects of loud music, here are some tips on how to listen to music safely:
Wear earplugs - this may seem counterintuitive when you’re going to hear people play and sing, but earplugs won’t stop you from hearing the music, they’ll just suppress dangerous levels of sound. They won’t dampen the sound, they just reduce the noise level so you can still enjoy the quality of the music.
Take regular breaks - this is especially important when listening to music through headphones. Taking breaks from listening to loud music means the cochlea has time to recover.
Position yourself far away from the loudspeakers - this may be easier said than done (especially for musicians) but the nearer you are to the speakers the more intense the sounds are.
Download a decibel reader on your phone - this will indicate when noise is particularly hazardous.
Keep hydrated - drinking water helps with blood circulation which helps to keep your ears healthy.
How to listen to music safely when using headphones:
Choose headphones over earbuds - earbuds increase the negative effects of loud music, as they are less effective at filtering out outside noise, which will cause people to turn the volume up even more on their devices.
Follow the 60/60 rule - this is where you listen to music on 60% capacity for no more than 60 minutes at a time.
Book a hearing test - if you need to listen to music loudly because you struggle to hear it on a lower volume, get your hearing checked by an audiologist and monitor your hearing.
Keep an eye on your hearing with the eargym app - this app will help you monitor your hearing and record improvements.
Hearing health resources for musicians
Hearing Conservation Guidance for the Performing Arts. 6 guidelines to help organisations protect performers' hearing, developed as a collaboration of the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine and Healthy Conservatoires.
Specialist Support and Audiology Care for Performers. Find out more about how an audiologist can help performers keep their hearing in top shape and avoid irreversible noise-induced hearing loss.
Noise at Work Regulations for Performers. A guide to Noise at Work Regulations for performing artists, including how to adhere to them and protect performers' hearing health.