I'm taking this blog in a slightly different direction this week. No motivational quotes to help you connect with yourself and your musicianship on a deeper level or to help you overcome the internal or external obstacles we face in this career. This week, I want to point out a very big, yet easily preventable issue in the music industry: Professional musicians are at a very high risk for noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL. We are 4 times more likely to develop hearing loss than non-musicians, because we are constantly exposed to loud sounds, spending several hours a day in dangerously loud environments.
How loud is too loud? To understand that, we need to understand how sound is measured. The amplitude, or intensity, of sound is measured in Decibels, or dB. A dB level of 0 is complete silence. A dB level of 10 is 10x louder than complete silence. However, dB levels are not a linear measurement, they are logarithmic, meaning 20dB is not 20x louder than silence, 20dB is 100x louder than silence. To give you a better idea, a normal conversation is about 60dB, and an ambulance siren is about 120dB, but a siren is clearly more than twice as loud as having a chat with friends.
Prolonged exposure to any noise over 85dB can result in gradual hearing loss. 85dB is the equivalent to the noise of heavy traffic or a crowded cafeteria or a night out at the bar (if anyone can remember what that's like in the days of COVID). 95dB is the equivalent to the noise of standing on a subway platform as the train comes in. 105dB is turning your headphones up as loud as they can go. No more than 15 minutes of exposure at or above 100dB is recommended. By the time we get to 110dB, or the equivalent of standing in the middle of an entire symphony orchestra, exposure of over 1 minute puts the listener at risk of permanent hearing loss.
Opera is a loud career. That sounds like an obvious statement, but when put in terms of dangerous dB levels, opera is an exceptionally loud career. Even practicing at home by yourself can be dangerous. Take a look at this video I recorded of the dB meter on my watch as I was warming up last week.
The highest note in that scale was a G, which is not the highest or the loudest note I can sing, and this is only 10 minutes in to my warmup routine. When I am fully warmed-up and singing arias, my singing is typically between 95-108dB in my home studio. I have listened to a friend, a Wagnerian Soprano, sing in a hall from over 150 feet away, and even at that distance, my meter was reading 104dB.
We rely so heavily on our hearing as singers, yet we take the health of our hearing for granted on a daily basis. Fortunately, hearing is very easy to protect with earplugs. Of course, most of us hear the word "earplugs" and think it means little squishy things you stick in your earholes to block out sound, which seems counter to the nuanced listening musicians are required to do. I assure you, earplug design has advanced far beyond sticking squishy bits in your ears. There are earplugs designed specifically for musicians to filter out dangerous dB levels, while still allowing the clarity and nuance of music to come through.
The most expensive option is to have custom earplugs made. You can do this through your ENT. My husband, who suffers from mild hearing loss and tinnitus in one ear, has a pair of custom plugs from his doctor, and he swears by them. He won't attend a concert or even go to a party without them. You can also get custom earplugs from sites like Sensaphonics. They are cheaper than going to the doctor (under $200), and you can customize the filter strength up to -25dB.
I personally use Earasers. They have a -19dB peak, which suits my purposes perfectly, and they are far cheaper than the other options (around $50). I wear them while using the blender, mowing the lawn, or doing other loud tasks, and I also practice with them in. I am still able to listen for pitch, clarity of text, dynamics, etc while wearing them. They come with a keychain carrying case that is connected to my car keys, so I have my earplugs with me wherever I go. They are also very discreet, and people can't tell you're wearing earplugs unless they are specifically looking inside your ears (who does that??).
Since starting down this career path, I have seen plenty of orchestra musicians use earplugs; earplugs are actually handed out at some rehearsals to the instrumentalists. However, I have only ever seen one other singer use them. I hope this blog inspires more singers out there to start considering the protection of, arguably, their most valuable assets.