Mom Was Right: Rock n’ Roll is Bad for You! But There’s a Cure
…the one thing he loves destroyed his ability to enjoy the one thing he loves.
I had two experiences in the last week that are conceptually related, leading me to examine a topic of great importance to all musicians and music lovers: ear protection. First, I saw TOOL last week at the Pepsi Center. Second, I had a good conversation with a stranger.
Yes, I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have to sell their car or take out a second mortgage in order get into the TOOL show (a topic of injustice I’ll bank for another post). I’ve seen TOOL a handful of times and one consistent experience I’ve had at their shows is the significant hearing loss I encounter over the next 48 hours. A few years back I purchased some nice custom-molded sound attenuating earplugs for band practice. Yet, despite my best intentions, I am ashamed to say it wasn’t until last week that I actually remembered to take them to a concert. Long story short, I wore my ear plugs the entire show and didn’t even notice them. The audio quality was great. Its also worth noting that once I removed the plugs after the band left the stage and the house lights came on, I was literally pained simply by the ambient noise of the people shuffling out of the venue! That alone opened my eyes to the potentially damaging decibels that go unnoticed in daily life. Oh yeah, and no hearing loss the next morning. So high-five to that!
Next, a few days later, I met someone who had spent their entire life working in the music industry. From our brief yet detailed conversation, I gathered he spent most of his time working as an engineer in recording studios around LA and Texas. Unfortunately this person now suffers from 80% hearing loss in both ears. Now, this guy isn’t much older than myself, so 80% hearing loss is pretty tragic for a fortysomething-year-old man. This is a person not unlike myself, probably not unlike anyone reading this blog post, in that he obviously adores music. So much so that he dedicated his life to it. Yet here he is midway through his life and the one thing he loves destroyed his ability to enjoy the one thing he loves. How’s that for a dysfunctional relationship?! Sheesh!
So you can see why, after having these two experiences within days of each other, I’ve been stewing on the health of my hearing and the greater concern for all of us who play live. I take these synchronicities in life seriously. I started Googling around about hearing loss and found it was often being grouped together with another ailment: cognitive decline. There have been multiple studies that have shown conclusively that hearing loss expedites the natural decline in cognition all humans suffer while aging. As hearing deteriorates the ears start picking up less sound detail and, therefore, less sound information is being sent to the brain. The brain is like a muscle; if you don’t use it you lose it. So if one of your most sensitive senses, your hearing, isn’t running full tilt, you can bet neither is your noggin. So, the added bonus to hearing loss is losing your mind. Not good.
For reference, sounds at or below 70db are considered safe. Anything above that can cause permanent damage depending on the length of exposure. So being in a movie theater where the sound is easily 85db and lasting a couple hours will cause long-term hearing damage. Running your lawnmower with around 100db of noise for as little as 15 minutes will cause permanent damage. Being exposed to 110db for as little as 2 minutes will permanently damage your hearing. Can you guess what volume band practice falls into? It is easily at or above 110db and I’ve never heard of a 90 second band practice. So I hope I’m making my point. Playing loud music without ear protection will eventually result in a life that’s less enriching and more difficult. Who wants that?! As an experiment I would recommend downloading one of those free decibel-measuring apps to your phone. Try it out the next time you practice and let the numbers speak for themselves.
Fortunately, we live in a time where there are many great options for ear protection and you don’t have to suffer with those fat, spongy orange things they hand out at chainsaw carving contests. I really don’t want this to turn into an earplug advertisement, especially since I only have experience with the ones I currently own. But I will say that I would DEFINITELY recommend them. I use the Westone ES49 Custom Earplug and, simply put, they are comfortable and they work exceedingly well. And at under $200 all in, they’re a bargain considering what I wrote above about going deaf and crazy at the same time. Ok, end of product ad. If you sincerely want more info on my personal experience with the Westone plugs, feel free to email me via the contact page and I’d be happy to help.
Just Google around and you’ll find there are many modern techie earplug options out there specifically with musicians and concertgoers in mind. Do yourself a favor and, instead of buying a new effect pedal or going out to dinner this weekend, put that dough towards protecting your ears. Once the music career naturally slows down with age, you will still have many years to enjoy listening to your favorite albums and playing at home. You are going to want your ears and mind sharp for that and the rest of life’s pleasures.