When you step onstage or sit behind your recording equipment, what's the one piece of equipment that makes your job possible? Your guitar? Your drums? Your mixing board? Wrong: Your ears.
Without your ears, a career in or even the simple enjoyment of music would be impossible, even with today's digital hearing aids. There's no substitute for good, natural hearing. And without protecting your ears, your chance of a long, prosperous career as a musician could easily be ruined. At very least, you could become hard of hearing and have to always ask people to repeat what they're saying; in some of the worst (yet still common) cases, you could live the rest of your life with a constant buzzing or humming noise, called tinnitus, in your ears. Hearing conservation is a serious issue for professionals and hobbyists alike; you need to understand how your ears work and how to protect them.
Understanding Human Hearing
As you probably know, sound is nothing more than waves of energy. The strength of those waves are called Sound Pressure Levels, or SPLs, which are measured in decibels (db). The higher the SPL, the louder the sound, and the worse for your hearing. The frequency spectrum of sound waves can be understood very simply: the slower and more widespread the sound wave, the deeper the sound; the higher and tighter, the higher the frequency. Frequencies are measured in hertz - or cycles. Human ears can only pick up a limited range of the aural spectrum - generally 20hz (very low bass) to 20,000hz (or 20 kilohertz, 20khz), but most of us are unable to hear past 16khz as we reach adulthood.
Sound comes into your ears through your ear canal as waves of energy, where they meet the eardrum, which is very similar to a stretched drum head on a drum kit. The eardrum causes the bones of the inner ear to vibrate, which in turn causes the cochlea, or inner ear, to vibrate. The cochlea is filled with tiny hairs, and when the fluid in the inner ear is vibrated, the energy is transferred to those hair cells, which translate the vibration to electrical energy which can be sent up the auditory nerve to the brain.
Pretty complicated (and amazing), isn't it?
The Real-World Risks
Hearing loss can come from various reasons. In fact, hearing loss is the most common birth defect; about one in every 1,000 babies are born with some degree of hearing loss. While we naturally lose a degree of hearing as we age, the most prevalent reason for losing hearing in today's age is overexposure. Remeber this simple formula: time + exposure = loss. When you expose your ears to loud music, you damage the tiny hair cells inside your inner ear. Sometimes this damage is temporary if the exposure was limited and few and far between (ever had your ears ringing for a couple days after a loud concert?). But sometimes this damage happens repeatedly over a long period of time, and that's where hearing loss comes in.
How To Protect Your Hearing
First off, limit your exposure. At most rock concerts, you'll be experiencing SPLs of 110 decibels or greater, depending on where you're sitting. At 110db, OSHA (the Occupational Safety & Health Administration) recommends only a half hour of exposure per day. You can further help your cause by wearing earplugs; reducing the SPLs by even 10db to 15db can allow you to listen to a concert without risk of hearing damage for up to 2 hours. Several companies now offer custom-fitted musician's earplugs with a filter to allow unattenuated high frequencies to pass through, presenting a much better listening experience. They run about $150 plus a visit to your audiologist, but you can purchase universal-fit versions for as little as $10-15.
Second, if you're a musician, there's a couple of things you should do. First, turn down your amp. I'm sorry, but nobody REALLY needs their amp cranked to "10", do they? Your arguments about "your tone" aside, it's not a pleasant experience for your audience or your eardrums to have several loud amps competing for volume. Finding a nice, hearing-healthy balance is extremely important -- and that's what good monitors are for. That being said, you should also consider alternatives to traditional floor wedge monitoring. In-ear monitoring has been the choice of touring professionals since it's introduction in the late 1980s. Reducing your exposure by taking your monitors in your ears instead of through loud floor wedges can help you stay healthy and still play. See our articles in the "Live Sound" section for more information on in-ear monitoring.
Third, see your audiologist for routine hearing tests regularly, at least once every 6 months if your livelihood depends on your ears being in good health. If you don't have health insurance (like a lot of musicians and freelance engineers), consider your options: a hearing screening can cost around $100, which is a small investment for a lifetime of listening. Also, check with your local universities and teaching hospitals. You might be lucky and have an audiology clinic nearby that can help you meet your needs, both ear-wise and budget-wise.
And most importantly? Use common sense. Keeping your ears healthy will prevent you from being one of the many musicians who, after years of overexposure, wish they'd made better choices. Be aware of your surroundings and your options, and you too can have a long, prosperous career making -- or enjoying -- music.