Ear Jam: A Music-Lover’s Guide to Hearing Loss

Janet Siroto
March 7, 2018

I once had the privilege of staying in the absurdly posh Beverly Hills Hotel, hidden among the live oaks and fragrant eucalyptus and lemon trees in the famous Los Angeles neighborhood. Seeking a restaurant recommendation from the concierge, I walked into the lobby and nearly collided with a man who, from two feet away, I recognized instantly: Pete Townshend of The Who.

Oddly enough, my first thought wasn’t how lucky I was to be in the presence of one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll guitarists ever. Instead, the first thing to pop into my head was, It’s so sad that he has tinnitus.

The Roar of Rock

Townshend is one of many rockers who suffer from damaged hearing, including the persistent and unnerving ringing in the ears. “It hurts, it’s painful, and it’s frustrating,” Townsend is quoted as saying on the website for the non-profit H.E.A.R., the acronym for Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers. In fact, Townshend—who is as famous for the bone-rattling volume at which he plays as he is for his signature windmill strumming motion—is nearly completely deaf in one ear, because he was standing next to Keith Moon’s drum kit when Moon literally blew it up at the end of a set back in ‘67.

He attributes the rest of his diminished hearing to playing decades of shows at jet-engine sound levels, and listening to high-volume playbacks through headphones during recording sessions. Now 71 years old, Townshend has responded by playing only acoustic shows with no drummer. His hearing loss is obviously a true hardship to the man himself, as well as millions of fans who’ll never hear his thundering power chords again.

Another rock guitarist, less famous but no less fond of playing loudly, told me he has diminished hearing in one ear. “I always stood stage right, in front of my Marshall stack and facing the drummer, so my left ear took the brunt of the damage,” says Lyle Preslar of the seminal Washington, D.C.–based hardcore band Minor Threat.

According to H.E.A.R., the list of musicians who’ve suffered hearing impairment goes on—Eric Clapton, Sting, Rosalynn Carter, Bob Mould, and Bono, who derived his stage name from the Bonavox Hearing Aid store in his hometown of Dublin.

What Music Fans Must Know

Those of us who’ve spent years going to dance and live-music clubs can also attest to the ringing in our heads after we left shows. In many cases, the ringing never stops. As I write this I am serenaded by a high-pitched chorus of tinnitus, not unlike the distant sound of crickets and peeper frogs on a summer evening. And if my family history indicates my own fate—two of my five sisters also suffer from this condition—the ringing probably will get worse as I grow older, and the volume of my voice in face-to-face conversation and on phone calls will increase accordingly.

While advancing age can be a factor in the worsening of one’s hearing, people of all ages susceptible. As many as 16 percent of teenagers in the United States report some hearing loss attributable to loud noise, according to a 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This rate is about 30 percent higher than it was in the 1980s and 1990s,” states an article published by the Medical Daily e-newsletter.

The culprits: headphones, which cover the pinna, or outer ear, and earbuds, which are inserted into the auditory canal. You don’t need to be a scientific researcher to know how prevalent the use of these music-listening devices is. Just look around while walking down the street, or riding a bus, train, or subway. Or at work. Everyone, it seems, is tuned-in and hooked up.

But we shouldn’t be. A volume of 85 decibels or less is considered safe, says Dr. David Schessel, a hearing specialist and the director of the Division of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at New York’s Stony Brook School of Medicine. Exposure to an increase of just five decibels over a prolonged period—namely, eight hours—are likely to damage hearing. And as the volume increases, so does the risk and severity of possible damage. In the audio world, it’s commonly known that smartphones and other MP3 players produce up to about 120 decibels. That’s 20 decibels more than a gunshot blast. An article published by the American Osteopathic Association cites 60 minutes of listening to music at 60 percent of a device’s top volume as being safe. Anything above that level or for a longer period may cause hearing damage.

And though headphones and earbuds both may cause a risk, earbuds pose the greater threat, because they concentrate and direct sound more efficiently than headphones. However, in today’s times, few people are ready to abandon earbuds completely, so it’s important to use them wisely.

The Safe Way to Listen

For all of us music fans, of any age, protecting our hearing becomes crucial. Lower the volume; take breaks from the earbuds, especially when you find yourself blasting your favorite songs. When you’re going to a concert or jamming with friends, use earplugs – Amazon has tons of options. And don’t hesitate to admit there’s a problem when the ringing won’t go away – and gets in the way of hearing. Talk to your doctor, as well as friends who are facing the same situation. Lifestyle changes, adaptive devices and apps can all play a part and help you keep listening to music you love (and hearing what those you love are saying), while protecting your ears for all the years ahead.