Choosing to be a musician puts you at greater risk of losing your hearing. It’s essential to understand your hearing and understand how to guard against losing it if you want to spend the rest of your life playing and listening to music.
Losing Your Hearing
It doesn’t take much to lose some of your hearing. I’ve personally lost some of my hearing just to the handful of times—a few concerts, standing next to crash cymbals, etc.—when I stupidly didn’t protect my ears.
I know a lot of musicians who have serious hearing loss because of the constant exposure to loud sounds. It only takes a few years to cause a lifetime of irreversible damage. Many musicians have a hard time sleeping because of a permanent ringing sound in their ears called tinnitus.
I can’t emphasize enough what a serious health hazard hearing loss is. To put it simply:
There is no band on Earth worthy of taking any of your hearing away from you.
By that I mean there is no single band that you can play in, concert you can go to, or recording you can crank up in your headphones that is worth ruining all of your future enjoyment of playing and hearing music. Don’t give up any amount of your hearing to anyone.
Let’s look at how your hearing works, what causes hearing loss, and how to prevent it…
How Your Ear Works
I’m not going to go into too much technical detail about how hearing works. In a nutshell, deep inside your ear there are thousands of little hairs that, when they vibrate, transmit signals to your brain and create the sensation of sound. All the hairs respond to various frequencies – low pitches, high pitches, etc. You have a set number of these hairs, called cilia, which won’t grow back if they are damaged.
What Causes Hearing Loss?
Hearing loss is caused when the cilia are damaged. When you expose your ears to loud sounds it causes some of the cilia to be permanently bent or lay down flat. The longer and more often you are exposed to loud sounds, the more cilia you damage and the more permanent hearing loss you develop.
How Loud is Too Loud?
Loudness is measured in decibels (dB). You begin to damage your hearing when you're exposed to constant sound levels above 85 dB. Sound levels above 120 dB cause serious damage to your ears.
A whisper is measured at 30 dB. A rock concert measures at 120-130 dB. An iPod at full volume plays at 120 dB. That’s as loud as a jackhammer or chainsaw!
As a bass player, you’re going to play with drummers a lot. Drums are loud and you’re going to be standing near them. When a drummer hits a drum the whack measures in at 125 dB! That’s loud. Your ears can handle only a few minutes of that before sustaining permanent damage.
Guitarists are loud, too. Many guitar amps can easily put out over 110 dB. Similarily, your own bass amp can put out some damaging volume as well.
Earlier I mentioned many musicians develop tinnitus – a constant ringing in your ears. That permanent ringing in your ears can be as loud as 70 dB. That’s the volume of a telephone ringing constantly in your ears. You don't want that 24 hours a day.
How You Can Protect Your Hearing
Hearing loss doesn't happen suddenly. It happens a little each time you're exposed to loud sounds. Once you notice it, it's too late. Luckily, it’s really easy to protect your hearing.
At any drugstore you can buy inexpensive foam earplugs. They’re usually found in the eye and ear section. Make sure you read the directions on how to properly put them in your ears. You might experiment and see which brand sounds best to you. Keep these with you all of the time. Put some in your gig bag. Put some in your glove box. Have some extras for friends.
There are also some reusable rubber/plastic earplugs for a little more. I really like these earplugs by Etymotic Research.
If you plan on sticking with playing music for a long time (and I hope so), you might consider some custom earplugs. They cost around $200. You have to go to an audiologist and have molds of your ear canals made. Then they make earplugs that perfectly fit you. These earplugs cut the volume evenly across all frequencies so everything sounds the same only quieter.
But, I’m Tough and Earplugs Don’t Look Cool
For some reason a lot of people, especially younger musicians, feel embarrassed using earplugs. They think it makes them look wimpy or weak. Hearing loss doesn’t happen to weaklings, it happens to anyone exposed to loud sounds. I've never heard anyone say, “Did you see John? That wimp was wearing earplugs!” People will realize you’re protecting your ears for a reason, not because you can’t take it.
If you think earplugs aren’t cool, try having conversations with people and need to say “Huh?” after everything they say. Or worse, you might stop taking part in conversations altogether because you can’t understand others. That’s not cool.
So, your hearing is not about being tough or cool — it’s about not being stupid.
Protect your ears even when you think the sound levels are not going to be that loud. When working with drummers and guitarists volumes can quickly get out of hand. Don't crank your MP3 player or your car stereo too loud either.
Remember: it doesn’t take much to lose your hearing, and it doesn’t take much to protect it.
If you want to read a bass player's first hand account of suffering debilitating hearing loss, read this interview with Paul Gray.