How to Protect Your Hearing as a Musician

Musicians

Like all other loud noises, loud music poses a significant threat to your hearing. Musicians and concert-goers alike have a very high risk of causing permanent damage to their hearing. If you enjoy music, losing your hearing can be a terrible thing, especially if you’re a musician.

Whether you’re performing, practicing, or just listening to music, there are a range of techniques and products you can use to protect your precious hearing.

The Risks

Noise levels above 85dB can cause permanent damage when you are exposed to them for long periods of time. The risks at 85dB aren’t too bad, with most workplace safety organisations stating that up to 8 hours of exposure to 85 dB noise is acceptable.

However, that exposure time is cut down to roughly 2 hours with noises of 100dB. To put that into perspective, a loud rock concert is roughly 120dB. At that volume, noise exposure without hearing protection will cause immediate and potentially permanent damage to your hearing.

Hearing loss is extremely common amongst musicians, with some studies (see here and here) suggesting upwards of 40% suffer from noise-induced hearing loss. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re performing for a crowd, you need hearing protection. This is especially important if you’re playing a traditionally loud type of music, such as rock or metal.

That’s not to say that hearing protection isn’t important when practicing as well; drums, electric guitars, and even violins have the potential to damage your hearing over extended periods of time.

How to Protect your Hearing

Depending on what the hearing protection is for, you may be able to get away without spending a small fortune on ear plugs. That being said, the most effective and most discreet option is always a pair of flat-attenuation in-ear ear plugs in our opinion.

If you’re performing regularly, you may wish to have a pair of musician’s earplugs moulded for your ears. Otherwise, there are relatively inexpensive pairs of musician’s ear plugs such as these available to be purchased off-the-shelf or ordered online.

Products

There are a variety of hearing protection products available on the market, though most are designed for workplace protection, rather than for musicians. There are two key things to look for in hearing protection for music:

  • Audio fidelity – The best ear plugs will reduce volume evenly across all frequencies, resulting in a sound that doesn’t sound muffled or distorted
  • Noise reduction – A higher noise reduction rating (NRR) or single number rating (SNR) means that the ear plugs offer greater protection against noise. See which ear plugs have the highest SNR ratings here.

Flat-Attenuation Earplugs

Flat-attenuation earplugs aim to reduce the volume of a noise as evenly across the range of frequencies as possible. They may also be referred to as flat-response earplugs or flat-frequency-response earplugs. These types of earplugs can be found for a wide range of prices.

If you’re a professional musician, you may want to invest in a pair of custom-moulded ear plugs. For those on a lower budget, musician’s ear plugs can be found considerably cheaper than that off-the-shelf, though the audio fidelity and protection will likely be worse.

Electronic Musician’s Ear Plugs

Though very pricey, there are a select few electronic options for your hearing protection needs, such as these from Etymotic. Unlike typical flat-attenuation earplugs, they make use of a microphone and speaker that picks up the music, reduces the volume when necessary, and plays it back to you. This has the advantage of allowing you to hear conversation without needing to remove the earplugs.

At the moment, they tend to slightly modify the sound compared to how it sounds without any protection at all. Though not objectively bad, it will alter how you play slightly. Hopefully future versions of these products will be better in that regard.

Instruments

Noise is a threat to all musicians, but it depends heavily on the instrument being played. Many instruments, such as acoustic guitars, are too quiet to cause hearing damage on their own. But other instruments can be extremely loud. Depending on the instrument being played and your budget, you may find that cheaper earplugs are sufficient.

Drums

If you’re a drummer, or even if you just happen to stand near a drummer on stage, you absolutely need hearing protection. Drums are very loud, occasionally clocking in at upwards of 125dB.

Due to the volumes involved, you drummers will definitely want something fairly heavy-duty. Whilst an expensive pair of custom-moulded earplugs are certainly an option, you may prefer cheaper hearing protection such as ear defenders that are designed for workplace protection.

Whilst the audio fidelity will be considerably worse, you will still be able to hear your drums well enough to keep a beat. We recommend trying out a few cheap brands and seeing which offer the best sound.

See the best hearing protection options for drummers here.

Orchestras

Even a symphony orchestra has the potential to damage your hearing, clocking in at roughly 110dB. At those volumes, permanent hearing damage can occur in a matter of minutes.

If you’re performing in a large orchestra, you should invest in some very powerful hearing protection. Since audio fidelity is likely to be important to you, a pair of custom earplugs might be worth the investment for you.

Electric Instruments & Amplifiers

Amplifiers are extremely important when performing for large crowds, or even when simply practicing an electric instrument.

If you’re using an amp to perform for a crowd, never position yourself directly in front of the amplifier, instead stand behind it or to the side of it. This will reduce your noise exposure massively. You should also strongly consider reducing the volume on the amplifier where possible.

If reducing the volume to safe levels is not an option, then you need hearing protection. If audio fidelity is important, then getting custom earplugs made is the best choice.

Summary

Being a musician exposes your ears to loud noises on a regular basis, which is why musicians have such a high rate of noise-induced hearing loss. As such, it’s absolutely critical that all musicians keep hearing protection as part of their gear; whether you’re a DJ or a violinist, hearing protection is crucial.

Hearing loss is especially devastating to musicians. Thankfully, there’s a vast range of hearing protection products for musicians available on the market today.

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