It's an occupational hazard that is taken seriously on building sites, in factories, and on farms - yet professional musicians continue to suffer from hearing loss at an alarming rate. According to Help Musicians UK, musicians are four times more likely to suffer from hearing damage. Despite this statistic, 68% of musicians haven’t had a hearing test in the last three years, 81% believe they should use hearing protection, and only 67% have ever used any.
So why are musicians seemingly so reluctant to protect their hearing? As a professional musician myself, I have been involved in many a discussion with friends and colleagues about this issue before now. For one, people simply don't consider that it could happen to them. But the big problem is that when noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) occurs, it is often too late, irreversable and, if a significant loss, can be life-altering. Several celebrity musicians, including Ozzy Osbourne and Pete Townshend, have revealed their hearing issues to the public - and although it is easy to think that it's a problem limited to the rock and pop scene, it's actually an issue that equally affects classical musicians.
Graph: Action on Hearing Loss
Another reason is the belief that earplugs distort sound, giving musicians a rather unpleasant experience. While such distortion occurs from standard foam or wax earplugs, a range of specialist attenuated musicians' earplugs are available for a cheap price (sometimes as little as £10) online and in high street music shops. Of course, bespoke products can also be purchased from independent providers as well as places such as Specsavers. However, Help Musicians UK is currently offering the Musicians' Hearing Health Scheme to encourage professionals in the occupation to take better care of their hearing. The scheme costs just £40 (or £30 for MU members), and comes with over £200 worth of benefits, including a specialist hearing assesment and, crucially, custom-made hearing protection. This is an excellent scheme and one which I encourage all UK-based professional musicians to join.
A lack of education about noise exposure and hearing loss undoubtedly adds to the poor statistics quoted above. Disappointingly, during my three years at university, only one session was dedicated to this important topic, and I know that other universities and conservatoires aren't much better despite many students being exposed to dangerously high noise levels - sometimes in excess of 100dB - for several hours a day.
I believe this lack of education to be the biggest contributing factor in musicians' seeming apathy towards their hearing health. Education is the most powerful tool, which is why I will continue to strive to improve awareness about sound levels and hearing protection in the profession. Will you join me?
If you want to find out more about hearing loss and protection for musicians, do take a look at some of the resources below: