Monday, October 25, 2010

Take care of yourselves, and each other

Q: There seems to be more and more obtrusive music and noise in public in our everyday lives. Would you say this is bad?

A: Yes, unequivocally. Our systems were not designed to withstand this onslaught every minute of our lives. We need to adopt the more advanced European standard of an alert-action sound level of 80 decibels, instead of the 85 we have now. In Sweden, I saw kindergartens with a wall of lights working as sound monitors: Green lights came on when voices were quiet and moderate, and yellow ones flashed when the noise increased. At 80 dB, red ones lit up. Visually, the children could see when they were being too noisy in the classroom. They could self-monitor.

Q: What about MP3 players?

A: The use of things such as iPods, which are forcing sound right down into the ear canal with the newer, tighter ear buds, is going to produce hearing loss and other auditory issues at far younger ages than we’ve seen in the past. This is going to be an epidemic of great proportions in our world. We also must educate ourselves and our children that making music that is too loud is not a well-thought-out activity. Children in bands or orchestras should wear ear protection in the form of musician’s plugs, which come with filters of 9, 15, or 25 decibels. We know there is a relationship between tinnitus, hyperacusis, and noise exposure, so let’s work harder to prevent those cases when we are easily able.

(From an interview with Dr. Marsha Johnson.)

A few weeks ago I had a brief, scary, and, for me, new experience with something that I now suspect could have been a bout of tinnitus. (I dunno, does tinnitus come in "bouts"?) To wit: it was a weird, faint ringing in my right ear, and it lasted for a few days. It has since disappeared, but I'm loathe to follow up with an audiologist, because, well, I'm freaked out by the possibility of bad news about my ears. Cuz I kind of need my ears to keep working.

Then again, why should I be even a little surprised if my hearing is indeed deteriorating noticeably? I shudder to think of the number of hours I have spent wearing a set of headphones (always my favorite way to experience music), or playing keyboards in a bad (read: overly-loud) bar band, or standing in front of any given IJG horn section. I have always craved total immersion in music, and considered it the price of any claim to legitimacy as a composer ("what do you mean, you've never heard of such-and-such a band?!"). But I wonder if the human ear is able to withstand the influx of sonic information that corresponds with such a desire / compulsion? Particularly in the context of a world that is already filled to the brim with sound? (When was the last time you really experienced "silence," anyway?)

I also wonder how many of us in this profession (i.e., the "music business," or its extension, the "music criticism business") truly know how good or bad our hearing actually is -- beyond the impression of authority that is the inevitable byproduct of having a point of view? Are we musical omnivores of the early twenty-first century already part of an "epidemic of great proportions," without even knowing it?

[photo credit: "Warning!" by Roger B.]


Anonymous said...

Yes, tinnitus comes in "bouts" and all loud, especially loud, percussive sounds contribute to its progression. Hammering nails, the lawnmower, the leaf blower, the skil-saw... Hearing protection isn't just for the mosh pit anymore. Wear it proud when it's loud.

tany said...

Unless your health insurance includes a free trip to the audiologist, don't bother with the time or expense of a hearing test. The result may not be as bad as you fear, but it probably won't be pretty either.

Buried in my garage, I recently found the result of one such test given in elementary school, when all the kids were loaded 2 or 3 at a time into a mobile trailer to listen for the tones. Left ear, fine. Right ear, all marks below the mid-line. This resulted in subsequent visits to audiologists' test chambers and even a CAT scan. To this day, I've got shallow hearing in the right ear and can only use the telephone on the left. And intermittent ringing.

I don't care what people think. If I'm at a show w/out my plugs, which is rare, I'll stand there with fingers to my ears. I agree with odohtoh, gotta wear them even with an electric edge trimmer, loud vacuum, or the first few seconds of processing almonds to make yummy almond butter :)

Anonymous said...

Does me plugging my ears and loudly singing "NAH NAH NAH I CAN'T HEAR YOU NAH NAH NAH" cause hearing loss?

jadane said...

Bad as my hearing is, I still cannot go to an ordinary movie without earplugs. I also agree with tany: all the audiologist will do is say "Yup, you got some hearing loss." You can take an amateurish version of the test on-line to find out where your loss is, but duh, it's in the high-frequency range. So you do what you can (e.g., classical musicians who sit in front of the horns have special seat-backs and often wear earplugs). Then you trust on your brain to compensate (as it compensates for so many other physical things, whose details need not concern us here).

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks, all, for the contributions.

I have actually never been comfortable with earplugs, at least when I am performing. I find them very disorienting. Of course, I have been merely using the straight-off-the-shelf models... I understand you can get earplugs that are custom-fitted for a much better experience. Maybe I'll try that.

Since I've been asking around about this subject, I have discovered that a much higher percentage of my musical peers have hearing loss than is openly talked about or assumed. This places recording studio aesthetic disagreements in an entirely different perspective.

Anonymous said...

I am a career jazzman with serious tinnitus in both my ears ALL the time. Nip it before it's too late. The first 5 years that I had it were VERY dark. It's devastating. That said, you learn to deal with it, and I'll never stop playing - I just stop going places that are too quiet so I can stop thinking about it.