Losing Your Ears to Music:
The hearing loss epidemic and musicians
by Bernard D. Sherman; reprinted from Early Music America (Spring 2000)

Bernard D. Sherman is the author of Inside Early Music (Oxford University Press, 1997), co-editor of Performing Brahms (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming), and author of the essay 'Authenticity in musical performance' in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (OUP, 1998). His essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Early Music and many other publications. After the following article was published, Lynn Neary interviewed him about it for NPR's "Performance Today."

When he had to take his 12-year-old to a concert by the group Smashing Pumpkins, Peter Jeffery planned to wait in a "parent's room." But a warm-up act commandeered the room, so Jeffery, a leading scholar of Gregorian chant, inserted a pair of earplugs, joined his son in the concert hall, and stayed to the end.

Big mistake. After the concert, Jeffery felt dizzy and his left ear ached; both symptoms lasted until morning. The next day, his left ear rang loudly and incessantly. The ringing turned out to be tinnitus caused by the decibel overload, and his doctor said it would never go away.

It hasn't. Jeffery has sued the concert hall, Smashing Pumpkins and their warmup acts, promoters, and record labels. The defendants and the plaintiff would probably disagree over whether Gregorian chant is better for your soul than, say, Smashing Pumpkins concerts. But no one can reasonably disagree about which is better for your ears. Monks never had to protect their eardrums during vespers.

Early music - from chant through Bach - is safer for the ears not only than rock, but also than standard orchestral and opera repertory, which is often loud enough to damage the performer's hearing. But if early-music performers and listeners have an auditory advantage, they are still not immune - as Peter Jeffery found out - to the new epidemic of ear damage.

Smashing Eardrums

According to press reports, the Smashing Pumpkins concert reached loudness levels of 125 decibels, enough to cause permanent hearing loss in a fairly short time. On their own, many fans also crank up their Walkmans and car stereos to ear-splitting levels. With that kind of exposure, plenty of Smashing Pumpkins fans will need hearing aids by the time they reach Jeffery's age. Many won't have to wait: at least 15% of American teenagers have permanently lost some hearing. That's about the same percentage you would find among people between 45 and 65.

That cohort, Jeffery's own generation, started the problem: we don't call them "boomers" for nothing. This generation made amplifiers as central to adolescence as acne. One study found that people in their 50s in 1994 had 150% more hearing trouble than people of that age in 1964. Amplified music was a large part of the reason.

True, rock music is not the only culprit. Such stereotypical guy-toys as guns, motorcycles, chainsaws, and snowmobiles can punish your ears just as badly; so can leaf blowers; so can some digital movie theater soundtracks. About 30 million Americans - more than one in ten - are exposed every day to dangerously loud levels of noise. And lasting damage can come even from a single blast of noise if it's intense enough.

Not that hearing loss is the most prevalent syndrome caused by all this noise. Jeffery is one of 50 million Americans with tinnitus; 12 million of them have ringing in the ears so loud that it's incapacitating. Despite occasional claims, there's no cure for tinnitus caused by acoustic overload. Current treatments can help patients cope with the condition, but can't reverse it.

The ear-damage epidemic is an example of what medical theorists call "a disease of civilization": a medical problem created by a mismatch between the world our bodies are designed for and the world we have created. Modern technology has created a high-decibel soundscape, but nature designed our ears for detecting predators creeping toward us and prey creeping away from us. It didn't equip us to withstand Smashing Pumpkins, because our ancestors hardly ever encountered anything that loud.

Over the last few centuries, with the rise of the industrial society, noise levels have increased dramatically. Music, instead of providing a counterbalance, has for its own reasons gotten louder, to the point of creating a public health hazard.

How Music Got So Loud

At a Berlin rehearsal in 1954, Wilhelm Furtwängler, the leading conductor in Europe, shook his baton to begin his own Second Symphony. The orchestra entered - and the maestro waved his hands to stop them. "That will be all, gentlemen," he said, sending them home for the day.

Were the acoustics unacceptable? Did the orchestra play so badly that it was hopeless to continue? No; the problem was that Furtwängler couldn't hear the opening bassoon line. Microphones had been set up around the podium, and headphones fed the signal into the conductor's ears, but he could hear no more than the elderly Beethoven could.

When I discussed the matter with Dr. Richard Tyler of the University of Iowa, he doubted a biographer's claim that a bout of medication damaged Furtwängler's right ear. Given the medical details, said Tyler, the most obvious explanation is that the conductor's hearing was done in by a lifetime of facing brass sections in Wagner and Bruckner. Dr. Tyler has treated other conductors with the same syndrome, although he couldn't name names.

It's unlikely that Byrd or Bach had a similar problem. Their ensembles were small, and the compactness was typical. One hears of exceptionally large bands - Corelli's, for example - but these were still small compared to those of Wagner and Mahler.

Even by the late 18th century, ensemble size was much smaller than many music-lovers imagine. Mozart operas were performed in houses that seated 500 listeners. The orchestras were chamber-sized, and the singing technique would be derided as "small-voiced" by modern opera devotees. The singers didn't lower their larynxes - that trick of voice placement that creates today's characteristic "operatic" sound and increases volume. The lowered larynx came into style only by the 1840s. And continuous vibrato, which helps project the voice over loud orchestras, became fully established even later.

Voices had to become louder because orchestras had. Not only had ensembles become larger by 1840, but instruments had been modified to increase their decibel output. Violinists, for example, had the necks on their instruments bent back and the bridges raised, to accommodate higher string tension.

Why the emphasis on volume? The reasons were at least partly economic. The opera houses and concert halls had to expand in order to provide more seats for paying customers. Aristocrats no longer funded the arts as their personal preserve, so revenues came more and more from the paying middle class.

The upside was that a much larger population now had access to art music. But Furtwängler's story illustrates a downside. To fill the larger halls with sufficient sound, the voices, instruments and ensembles had to crank up to potentially ear-damaging levels. Countless violists, who sit right in front of the brass, have been deafened as a result. And some veteran opera singers, thanks to years of being screeched at by their fellow divas at close range, have lost a good deal of hearing.

Still, audiences had little to worry about. Classical music was rarely loud enough to hurt their ears; performers bore the risk. Today, however, popular music has endangered the audience too. In the mid-20th century, electrical amplifiers transformed popular music, making a good deal of it hazardous to auditory health.

Many consumers want maximum decibels, of course. We've all heard cars with those thumping subwoofers that can make a passerby's dentures rattle; some of these cars carry a bumper sticker that reads, "If you think this is too loud, you're too old." For some young consumers, ear-splitting music is not just a taste, it's a badge of belonging.

Why so many people want to hear punishingly loud music is an unanswered question. Is it the sheer intensity of the experience? Is it the coolness? One speculation holds that loud music at dances saves kids from having to make clever conversation - they need merely show up, look good, and twitch appropriately.

An obvious reason for teenage indifference is that the consequences often don't show up for years. Hearing is usually lost in tiny increments. You don't notice any problem until you're already half deaf, at which point it's too late. (Tinnitus, however, can have sudden onset at any age.)

There is essentially no public policy trying to counter the marketplace trend toward the super-loud. Lawsuits like Jeffery's may help to make promoters more cautious, and there are a few public-interest groups trying to raise awareness about the problem. But they seem like fingers in the dike. Loud music is everywhere, and exposure isn't always a matter of consumer choice.

What Musicians Can Do

Fred Smith (not his real name) is an early-music lover and amateur performer who suffers from tinnitus. Five years ago, at a bar mitzvah he attended, the reception was emceed by a rock DJ with a wall of mega-amplifiers. Fred's ears have been ringing ever since. Today, Fred never leaves home without a box of his favorite brand of earplugs, "Mack's," in his pocket. When he's in a big city, he always puts the plugs in before he walks outside. "You never know when a siren will start up or a bus brake will screech," he says.

The problem is that loud, high-pitched noises make his ears ring even louder for a day or two, and the increased ringing could potentially become permanent. He doesn't want to chance it. Fred now listens to choral and orchestral music only at home on his stereo, where he can control the volume. Fred's situation is extreme, but doctors assure him that the precautions he takes are sensible.

One can try, of course, to keep oneself from getting into Fred's situation in the first place. Some early-music lovers leave when the rock 'n' roll starts. And in the inevitable encounters with noise - from lawnmowers to movie theaters - some people rely on earplugs, which can reduce the volume by about 20 decibels, although the case of Peter Jeffery shows their limitations.

Another problem with plugs - that they distort the sound of music by reducing the higher frequencies more than the lower ones - can be overcome with special "musician's earplugs." These re-usable plugs, which require fitting by an audiologist and cost about $100, reduce the decibel level evenly throughout the entire frequency range. They can be adjusted to reduce the decibel level to greater or lesser degrees.

But while such plugs are catching on among rock musicians (some of whom know not to perform without their plugs), they will never be necessary among viol consorts or clavichordists. Not all old instruments are safe to the ears, of course: bagpipes are as loud as freight trains, and a large double French harpsichord played in a small, live room has enough intensity in the upper partials to cause tinnitus if you practice day in and day out. Organs can do the same. Still, in general, early music players and listeners have little to fear from their focus on music and instruments from the quieter past.

The early music movement is sometimes criticized for its preoccupation with the past, but with respect to noise levels, the past has something to teach us. The economics of performance have changed, and many of us wouldn't want to return to the lifestyles of medieval monks. But the music continues to speak to us - and it does so while respecting the natural limits of the human physiology.


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