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Reflections on music related hearing damage – Chris Adams

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This week, Live Music Exchange’s own Chris Adams looks at the issue of loudness induced hearing damage and makes the argument for better education for those working with (and enjoying) loud live music.

Leafing through the collection of over 120 blog posts on the Live Music Exchange website, I was perhaps a little surprised to see none discussing hearing in relation to live music. In the highly regulated safety conscious event space it can be an uncomfortable subject: the hangover may wear off, but loudness induced damage to hearing is typically invisible, cumulative, irreversible and even inevitable for some audience members. Personally, belated revelation of the fragility of hearing health came in my mid-twenties whilst working in a municipal music technology training facility, where a methodical approach to health and safety was culturally embedded. Whenever awareness of relevant legislation arose – in this case the since superseded Noise at Work Regulations (1989) – it was generally researched, adopted and adhered to. Thus, one afternoon in the early nineties, Mr. Bacon, a suitably qualified environmental health specialist, came in for an afternoon to talk to the technical and tutorial staff, armed with a super 8 projector and quarter inch tape recorder to demonstrate his points. Along with the films and audio examples, he spoke in some detail about the anatomy of the ear; how the sense of hearing worked; the signs of hearing loss; preventative measures and employer and employee responsibilities as determined by the new regulations. While he made his way through the talk, two things struck me. Firstly, as was quickly obvious, I’d been working and playing with loud sound since my teens without a proper understanding of the primary sense involved (and if this was news to me, it would be even more so to the general population). Secondly, the dawning realisation that in the terms presented I had already done irreparable damage to my hearing: the faint ringing sound in my ears – tinnitus – was apparently permanent, and would only get worse with time and further exposure.

The Noise at Work regulations were just that: they concerned employees and self-employed contractors who might be exposed to loud sound in the course of their jobs. There was no distinction between noise produced for pleasure at a music venue or as a by-product of industrial machinery on the factory floor. As far as measuring devices (including the ear), were concerned, jackhammers and PA speakers had the same potentially injurious effect of generating high sound pressure levels. However, while the staff behind the bar at a club or behind a mixing desk in a venue were notionally protected, the customers on the other side were not. I’ll return to this later, but for the moment I say notionally, since I’ve rarely encountered anyone other than musicians (mainly drummers), sound engineers, and security staff wearing hearing protection in club, concert or festival environments, and they tended towards the exception. In at least some part, this is probably down to the ear being a place where art, biology and maths meet. Sound as we perceive it exists entirely in the mind, and the acoustic phenomenon which produces it arises from changes in air pressure ranging over billions of micropascals between the thresholds of hearing and pain. However, that isn’t particularly helpful for everyday use, so we describe sound pressure levels using the decibel (dB) scale, which is tenths of bels (and named after inventor Alexander Graham Bell). The decibel gives us a scale beginning at 0 for the threshold of hearing and 140 at the threshold of pain. Unfortunately, and reflecting the way we perceive changes in sound pressure level (SPL), the decibel is a logarithmic scale, with any given position on it derived from the ratio of two values – silence and the pressure level being measured. The net result is that while most people would be able to come up with an approximation of a metre or a kilo, very few would be able to point at a bus driving past a pedestrian at 1 metre distance and say 85 dB (SPL), and probably even fewer invoke the inverse square law to explain how each subsequent doubling of the distance reduces that figure not by half, but by 6dB (SPL).

Numerical representations of the acoustic phenomena of sound pitch and intensity levels are more than arithmetic, but not rocket science by any means. Similarly, the anatomical workings of the ear, a marvel of evolution, aren’t much different in principle from everyday human made sound related transducers like microphones, earbuds and speakers. Yet so long as they remain little understood by the general population, people, and particularly those regularly engaged with the consumption of live and/or recorded music will unnecessarily damage their hearing. To repeat, the key point here is that the effect of frequent exposure to loud sound is cumulative, difficult to detect and can significantly accelerate the natural biological trajectory of the normatively ageing sense of hearing. In the absence of any viable medical “repair” option, the only solution is prevention through education. Moreover, the knowledge needs to be delivered before prospective music consumers start engaging with loud sound on a regular basis, and at a point where the maths and biology can converge to furnish a good practically underpinned understanding. Which to some extent begs the question, why isn’t this happening already? What are the worlds of music education and live music industry doing to address the risks of damage to future music workers and consumers? The answer appears to be: not very much – or least not at the point where it is likely to make a useful contribution – before the damage is done. A quick search reveals no shortage of news and industry websites and articles covering hearing health, but often framed by post damage retrospection. In the academic world, Emma Webster’s work on live music promoters suggests live industry ambivalence and a sense that health concern equates with invasive unnecessary over-regulation (2011). Johnson and Cloonan’s Dark Side of the Tune even highlights the use of music as a form of violence (2009), including the self-administered. Thirlwell’s plaintive reflection on tinnitus in Zorn’s Arcana II lays out the real life consequences (2007), with an artistic starkness curiously resonant with my memories of Mr Bacon and his Super 8 movies. And, of course, there’s always Ludwig van Beethoven.

Mr Bacon’s predictions have been unerringly accurate. As time has passed, the faint ringing has become an inexorably rising tide which consumes sound by smothering it beneath a featureless sheet of wafer thin sine tone. It appears that in the next decade I can look forward to an outside sonic world progressively more mute, distant, and devoid of detail. The internal sonic world will grow, yet paradoxically shrink: it will be more and more difficult to judge speech levels; and the physicality of projection will become awkward and even daunting. Speaking up will feel like shouting. Increasingly, listening will require line of sight, to the movement of the mouth and innumerable visual cues of conversation. Some consonants will retreat, while others, particularly sibilants dominate. As the act of listening demands ever greater attention and concentration, meaning will become tenuous, fragile and ultimately brittle, especially prone to fracture in social environments. So I count myself fortunate to have benefitted from Mr Bacon’s timely intervention some 25 years ago. I’ve been able to enjoy a career working in recording, production, composition and even a little sound design for far longer than would have otherwise been the case. Not only that, but I’d suggest that use of hearing protection induces a rather intriguing form of objectivity which the loudness driven immersion of the live (and club) music experience purposely sets out to mask. When your hearing is not being destroyed by the extremes of mid and high frequency excess you can actually distinguish what is going on musically. With information reduction, social interaction can take on a montage like quality. One of the most striking observations is the recognition of just how much effort it can take to be heard or to hear conversation: if the music was absent we’d probably think of shouting directly into somebody’s ear from a foot away as a form of assault.

The catalyst for writing this blog has been recent experience of surveying musicians as part of my PhD research. Over a quarter of a century after the original Noise at Work Regulations, and with a huge amount of information on hearing health just a click away, it appears that earplugs are still the exception rather than rule for performers and audiences. This isn’t just a matter of spoiling the loud fun: it’s symbolic of a widespread lack of understanding of how our ears work. Protecting hearing doesn’t mean never listening to music loud – it means limiting exposure.  Action On Hearing Loss (formerly RNID) estimate 10 million people in the UK have some form of hearing loss (2014). If you’re one of them and haven’t done anything about it, find out how you can preserve your hearing and continue to enjoy music whether for work, leisure or both. If you’re fortunate enough to still have healthy ears make sure you keep them that way.

Chris Adams

References

Action On Hearing Loss, 2014. Look After Your Hearing. [online] Available at: < http://www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/your-hearing/look-after-your-hearing.aspx > [Accessed 12th January 2015].

Johnson, B., and Cloonan, M., 2009. Dark Side of the Tune. Popular Music and Violence. Farnham. Ashgate Publishing Limited.

The Noise at Work Regulations, 1989. Table of Contents. [online] Available at: < http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/1989/1790/contents/made > [Accessed 12 January 2015]

Thirlwell, J.G., 2007. Tinnitus: An Occupational Hazard. A Casualty on the Battlefield of Noise. In: J. Zorn, ed. 2007. Arcana II Musicians on Music. New York. Hips Road

Webster, E., 2011. Promoting live music in the UK: a behind the scenes ethnography. Ph.D. University of Glasgow. Available at: < http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/2955 > [Accessed 12th January 2015]

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on music related hearing damage – Chris Adams

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  1. A brave and clear call to action, thank you. I wholeheartedly endorse your observation that those working in music education and live music to address this with urgency.

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