How can noise damage our hearing?
Hearing is a complex process that works like this: Sound waves enter the outer ear and travel through the ear canal to the ear drum. The ear drum vibrates from the incoming sound waves and sends these vibrations to three tiny bones in the middle ear. The bones in the middle ear couple the sound vibrations from the air to fluid vibrations in the cochlea of the inner ear, which is shaped like a snail and filled with fluid. Once the vibrations cause the fluid inside the cochlea to ripple, a traveling wave forms along the basilar membrane. Hair cells—sensory cells sitting on top of the basilar membrane—ride the wave. As the hair cells move up and down, microscopic hair-like projections (known as stereocilia) that perch on top of the hair cells bump against an overlying structure and bend, creating an electrical signal. The auditory nerve then carries this electrical signal to the brain, which translates it into a sound that we recognize and understand.
Hearing loss due to noise exposure can be caused by a one-time exposure to a loud sound or repeated exposure to sounds at various loudness levels over an extended period of time.
The following are some warning signs of the presence of or exposure to hazardous levels of noise:
- You can't hear someone talking three feet away.
- You have a feeling of “fullness” in your ears after leaving a noisy area.
- You hear ringing or buzzing (tinnitus) in your ears immediately after exposure to noise.
A hearing screening is a test to tell if you might have hearing loss. Hearing screenings are easy, not painful, and usually only a few minutes. To keep your hearing healthy, you are encouraged to screen your hearing at least once per semester.
You can perform a quick hearing test on your own using the Berklee Hearing Health app by Decibel Therapeutics. Since this is just an application, it is not a diagnosis. A complete hearing evaluation (audiogram) can be performed by an audiologist.
If you find a new hearing loss or change in your hearing, contact your ENT doctor or otologist, or contact the hearing professionals leading the hearing conservation efforts at Berklee, Stephane Maison, Ph.D., or Steven D. Rauch, M.D., for consultation. More resources in the Boston area can be found in the Resources for Hearing Loss Treatment tab below.
This non-custom, one-time-use, one-size-fits-all form of protection is the most widely recognized and used. Foam earplugs are inexpensive, can be purchased at almost any drug store, and offer a great deal of protection. The downside is that they greatly reduce high frequencies, which distorts or muffles the sound quality of music, resulting in an unfavorable listening experience.
Non-Custom Musicians' Earplugs
These custom-made silicone sleeves are molded to the ear canal with a removable filter to change between different levels of attenuation (9dB, 15dB, 25dB). They reduce sound equally across all frequencies to preserve sound quality, making music clear and natural-sounding, but at a safe level. Musicians' earplugs range in cost from $115 to $200.
In-Ear Monitors (IEMs)
IEMs are earpieces containing two or three speakers, which are individually molded to the musician's ear by an audiologist. When inserted into the ear canal, the device effectively seals off outside noise and delivers a custom mix of vocals and instrumentation directly to the musician's ear.
Protecting your ears is critical to ensure your future years of music-making. These brochures offer information about preventing hearing loss and custom-fitted musicians' earplugs:
Note that Northeastern University offers hearing tests and will order custom earplugs for you.
Northeastern University Speech-Language and Hearing Center
503 Behrakis Health Sciences Center
30 Leon Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02115
The Northeastern University Speech-Language and Hearing Center is an American Speech-Language and Hearing Association (ASHA) approved facility.