Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is a big problem for musicians.

A musician’s most important sense is hearing. When musicians experience hearing loss, it can end a career. Hearing loss can occur from exposure to loud noise, aging, or neurological problems. For orchestral musicians, hearing loss can cause difficulty with tuning and blend. Music teachers with hearing loss may have trouble detecting and fixing errors.

Hearing problems are not limited to diminished hearing. Exposure to loud sounds can also cause tinnitus, also known as ringing in the ears. You may have experienced this after listening to a loud concert. Tinnitus, can be temporary or permanent, but it can have devastating consequences for musicians.

Hearing Loss Affects 40% of Musicians according to a survey conducted by Charity Help Musicians UK.

A German research study from 2014 studied the incidence of hearing problems in musicians versus the general public. The study observed that hearing loss is an occupational hazard for musicians. It concluded

Professional musicians have a high risk of contracting hearing disorders. Use of already available prevention measures should reduce the incidence of HL (hearing loss) in professional musicians.

I have had my hearing testing and I have lost some of the high end of my hearing, probably from playing piccolo. My husband and kids are able to hear higher pitches than I can. Although I now use ear plug when practicing high notes, I wish I had known about using ear protection while in high school.

Let’s talk about safety.

I am concerned that high school students are being exposed to loud noise in marching band. Perhaps the noise level is appropriate on a football field, but when rehearsals are inside, the noise level is extreme. Even on the football field, the instruments are often held close to the head. There were many times I had a trumpet blowing in my ear during close formations. My ears would ring after marching band rehearsals.

Two of my students are playing in a “BLAST” concert next week. At the end of the marching band season, some local high schools bring the competition show inside for a final performance in the school auditorium. There will be over a hundred band students playing music intended for a stadium, but they will be playing in an auditorium. I’ve never been to the “BLAST” concert, but everyone says it is extremely loud. Do the kids play with ear protection? I asked my students and they looked at me like I was from Mars. Do the parents and siblings in the audience wear ear protection? No. This is a horrible idea! Everyone within 2 miles of the high school should be wearing heavy-duty ear protection.

hearing protection

hearing protection- the kind you need for playing piccolo!

Hearing loss is not cool. Tinnitus is not fun. We don’t let the football team go on the field without pads. We shouldn’t let the marching band play the halftime show without earplugs.

A simple solution: wear ear protection.

My favorite ear protection is the ER-20.

save your hearing with these

ER-20 earplugs

The ER-20 earplugs are comfortable to wear, virtually invisible, and protect your hearing. Unlike foam earplugs, these reduce the volume by 12dB across the spectrum, which means things sound the same… just quieter. You can still hear voices well, which is important in a rehearsal. I wear the ER-20 earplugs anytime I play piccolo (practice at home, rehearsals, and concerts). I also use them at rock concerts and at movie theaters. (Am I the only one that thinks the volume is too high at the movies?!) My husband uses them when tuning pianos. Losing his hearing would also be terrible for his career. These earplugs allow my husband to adjust pitch, but the loud test blows will not damage his hearing.

The ER-20 earplugs can be purchased on Amazon here.

The price of the ER-20 earplugs has come down since I purchased a pair. Now you can own a pair for less than $15. I’ve had mine for about 20 years and keep them in my flute case. The best solution for hearing protection for musicians is to purchase custom molded ear protection, but these are expensive. Because foam earplugs are available at every convenience store for cheap, everyone should have some. We buy them by the box for mowing the grass and working with power tools. But even if you forget your ER-20 earplugs and can’t get to a Walgreens for foam plugs, you can wad up a piece of tissue or toilet paper and put it in your ears. Make sure the piece is large enough that it won’t get stuck in you ear canal. You won’t win any awards for fashion, but you may save your hearing!

Rant over.

Hearing vs. Listening

There is a big difference between hearing something and actually listening to it.

In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman observes

“Sounds thicken the sensory stew of our lives, and we depend on them to help us interpret, communicate with, and express the world around us.”

Even when we seek to be completely silent, there are still noises.We are all born with the sense of hearing, but musicians must be especially sensitive to developing their powers of listening.


ensemble members listen to everything

Hearing is a passive activity. Our ears are constantly taking in information, much of it background noise. Those little bones in our ears are vibrating whether we want them to or not. Our brains have been processing auditory input since the first day we were born. Most of us are pretty good about filtering out the unimportant noise like traffic and the sounds of the house/office/school. It doesn’t take judgment or discernment to hear a sound because it’s a purely a physical, unconscious process. If you’ve ever been woken up in the middle of the night by a loud sound, you know that you are hearing even when you are asleep.

Listening, on the other hand, is an active, conscious process. True listening only takes place when were fully aware of the auditory inputs. Listening involves making judgments, and it invites changes. Listening is dynamic. However, listening is a learned process and that’s why it is a skill that must be cultivated by musicians.

Why is deep listening important to musicians?

1. The sound we hear while playing the instrument is different than the way the audience hears it, especially the tone color and dynamics.
2. Because our art is guided by the ear, we learn by emulating teachers, recordings, concerts, masterclasses.
3. Musicians who play wind and string instruments have to make fast and accurate adjustments in pitch.
4. Identifying mistakes is the first step in fixing them.
5. The beginning, middle, and end of notes must be carefully shaped.
6. In an ensemble, the players have to be responsive to one another.

The next time you’re in a crowded place, try focusing on a single conversation. Can you block out the other sounds? This exercise will strengthen your powers of listening.

Parents can help their young musicians by being another set of ears in the practice room. Because listening involves concentration, having another person in the practice room can promote mindful practice. I talk about other ways you can help your child in the practice room in the blog post Helping Kids Practice.

Musicians need to be reminded that expressive elements need to be exaggerated to be heard by the audience. Actors apply heavy makeup when they are onstage. The lights and distance mute the effects of the makeup so that it seems natural from the audience. In the same way, musicians have to exaggerate dynamics, vibrato, accents, etc. for the listeners to perceive them.

The first time I ever recorded myself playing the flute, I was astonished. It was like hearing my voice on an answering machine – shocking and humbling. The sound was remarkably different and suddenly I realized all the little mistakes in tempo and intonation. In graduate school, I recorded all of my lessons. Reviewing the tapes, it was amazing how much information I had missed. Now that cell phones are ubiquitous, it is easy to make digital recordings. I believe all musicians should record themselves from time to time.

It takes discipline to develop mindfulness in the practice room. Cultivating deep listening skills has been invaluable to me as a performer and teacher. Beyond the practice room, I think good listening skills have helped me be a better mother and wife.

Happy practicing!