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Live music and its effect on the ears: The importance of ear plugs

2 June 2021 | 2:20 pm | Parry Tritsiniotis

We’ve all been in the situation where we’ve got home from seeing live music whether at a concert, club night and thought, ‘Damn, that hurt’.

We’ve all been in the situation where we’ve got home from seeing live music whether at a concert, club night, or even a loud bar and thought, ‘Damn, that hurt a little bit’. Ears ringing, head hurting, we often wake up the next day and get on with it. But what do these signals mean? How loud is too loud? What can we do to prevent that feeling? And do these scenarios affect hearing long term? 

The two main factors that influence the level of sound damage include the sheer volume of the live music and the amount of time exposed to loud music. Sound is measured interestingly via decibels (db), a non-linear, logarithmic unit of measurement. To all the non math heads, this means that every time the noise levels increase by 10 decibels, the volume is actually twice as loud. For example, 85db may cause hearing loss after 8 hours of exposure, and 115db of sound can cause instant hearing loss. 

It all doesn’t sound too scary, but once you start analysing the situations that punters put themselves in on a week to week basis the volume exposure starts to add up very quickly. A typical club night/small venue sits comfortably between 85 to 95 db, or about the same volume of noise that a power hand drill or lawn mower makes. A typical concert or festival will regularly achieve decibel readings of close to 115db, or about the same amount of noise as a power saw or sandblasting. While the average concert goer may experience ear ringing symptoms after a show, consistent attendance of live music can lead to one of the most feared things in the music industry, tinnitus. 

Noise induced hearing impacts can occur after a single exposure to live music. So how does the science work? The average person is born with 16 000 hair cells within their ears, these hair cells are what tells your brain to detect sounds. After a loud event, like a club night or a concert, when you get home you might notice your hearing affected or a ringing noise, this is due to the hairs within the ears having been bent at a proportion of how loud the sound exposure was. If loud noise continues to damage the hair cells, they can often die. Up to 30% to 50% of hair cells can be damaged or destroyed before changes in your hearing can be measured by a hearing test, so it’s really hard to tell when or how every concert specifically affects individual hearing capabilities. 

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A report from the Australian Governments Department of Human Services highlighted that 7/10 young people believe that gigging and clubbing had no physical health risk. Of the venues they tested, all but one event averaged a volume of below 100db. So where does the responsibility lie? Is it on the punter, the venue, the sound engineer, or the government?

The easiest solution is the ol' faithful ear plug. Foam earplugs are the most easily accessible, readily available and universally fit earplugs. They’ll cost a couple of dollars, and can reduce volume levels by 20db. They’re cheap and extremely comfortable for extended periods. Destigmatising ear plugs is the main solution for the live music effect on the ears. Many people are afraid to lose that loud experience, but with ear plugs the benefits definitely outweigh the costs. The overall effect is purely beneficial and the majority of punters are surprised by how impactful they are while also keeping that live music, high intensity feel. 

Despite their obvious benefits, foam ear plugs are made for single use only, and are designed to block sound rather than keep the clarity of live music. There’s an argument to be made that investing in high fidelity earplugs is cheaper and better for the environment. High fidelity ear plugs can cost as little as $80, and can be used for an indefinite period of time (years) if kept clean. They’re designed to retain quality and clarity, only removing the harshest of noises in order to protect hearing. 

Image via Wikipedia.