Easy Ways to Protect Your Hearing

24 August 2018
Siobhan McGinnity

Siobhan McGinnity. Photo by Greg Holland.

Photo by Greg Holland

Words by Siobhan McGinnity

‘Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?’ I can’t believe I just started an article with Counting Crows lyrics* – I’m so sorry. I also didn’t believe I’d ever go deaf, yet here we are.

I’m a musician (Magnets), research audiologist (my PhD focuses on hearing injury prevention in musicians), and founder of the non-for-profit organisation Musicians 4 Hearing, using music to help fund hearing care for those who need it. I’ve spent my entire career focusing on helping people hear music for life, so when I woke up with hearing loss in late 2017, you can forgive me for thinking it was all just a bit too ironic.

I was later diagnosed with Ménière's Disease (look up Ryan Adams – he has it too), a condition of fluctuating hearing and imbalance categorised by one of the hardest things to process: uncertainty. I don’t know what my hearing will be like on any given day, let alone what it will be in the future, and I now face the very real chance that I am slowly, progressively losing access to sound.

Music was always my first love, and if you’re reading this, it’s likely a huge love of yours, too. So, if you have time to spare, I would love to take the opportunity to point out ways in which you can look out for your ears, and engage with music for as long as possible.

Rest and recover

Just like any other part of your body, your ears get tired. Listening to sounds that are too loud for too long can lead to fragments of the inner ear and nerve becoming injured and fatigued, which, if repeated, may lead to permanent harm. Fortunately, your ears usually tell you when this has happened, with feelings such as dullness, a blocked sensation, fullness or ringing in them after a particularly loud night out or rehearsal. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’ve felt or heard these sensations, it’s time to rest. Give your ears a chance to recover by reducing your exposure for the next day. Better yet, take time to think ahead to what you might do differently next time you’re in that environment – because the truth is that repeated small injuries like these add up, and while you might not immediately notice the impact, they will eventually take their toll.

Make friends with earplugs

At some point in every adult’s life, you have to make friends with salad. Well, if you love music and your ability to hear it, at some point you’ll have to make friends with earplugs, too. The hardest part about recommending earplugs to an individual is combatting the wall of stigma I come up against. It is slowly changing, but we still see a huge percentage of people admit they’d judge themselves or others for using them. If this is you – why? Your ears are a finite resource. If someone is being pro-active and taking care of them, should we not celebrate that choice? If you’re interested in finding some options, HEARsmart recently released through choice.com.au a wonderful review of a whole range of earplugs available for musicians. If you’re keen to splurge, you might consider custom-made earplugs or custom in-ear monitors (you’ll need to see an audiologist). No-one’s saying you have to wear them all the time, but they do work and they do prevent harm – so it’s in your best interests whenever it’s too loud for too long.

Ear Illustration

Illustration by Anjana Jain

Use the right headphones

I get asked about this all the time, usually with a lot of fear behind the question: am I making myself go deaf? Truth be told, the research suggests most of the time we’re pretty good at listening to music at safe volumes (congrats all), but where it all goes wrong is background noise. We’ve probably all sat on a train listening to the worst possible version of a song as it spills out from someone’s loose earbuds. But before we blame that person entirely, what the individual is quite logically trying to do is improve their signal-to-noise ratio. We like to hear our music clearly, so when there’s background noise we turn the signal (music) up above the noise (train). Makes sense, right? In quiet, the signal is already well above the background, so we don’t tend to turn it up – but as the noise level rises, so too does the volume and therefore the pressure we are putting on our ears. So much so that music through ill-fitting earbuds or headphones has been shown to be turned up by up to 20 dB in background noise! That’s a huge difference from a conservation perspective, when 3 dB equates to a doubling of intensity. When choosing headphones, always keep this in mind and pick ones that block out the noise best for you, whether it be over-the-ear, custom, snug fitting canal models or noise-cancelling for extra points.

Get your ears tested

We grew up getting told to have our teeth checked annually by a dentist, but what happened to our ears? We use them arguably just as much, yet the public health message is missing. If you work in the music industry, or attend gigs often, it’s a good idea to add this to your health regime. I often hear that musicians avoid this, afraid of the outcome or discovering they’ve done damage – but in most cases it’s the complete opposite. Seeing an audiologist isn’t just about diagnosis, it’s about empowerment. One thing I love most is sitting down with a musician and helping them realise music is not the enemy, and no, they’re not to blame for what’s happening in their ears. Redirecting that concern and putting it into prevention and healthy practices is far more effective than waiting around for when it all goes wrong. If you want to hear music for life, that’s where it starts.

Hearing Injury

It’s not just hearing loss that can occur in the industry. In fact, that’s just one of the main five symptoms we see from sound over-exposure, and people living with these can often get overlooked. They include: tinnitus, a ringing in your ears or head; hyperacusis, a decreased tolerance of volume; distortion; and diplacusis. The last one I never quite understood from the books, but I hear it occasionally now, and to me the easiest way to describe it is a doubling of sound – only completely out of key and with no respect for the western scale (the closest vocal pedal match I could find was a TC Helicon D1 on ‘Detune’ setting). These conditions can all be symptoms of over-exposing our ears to sound, but fortunately, they are all entirely preventable. The good thing about this type of injury is that the moment you act to reduce harm, you stop the progress. Many incredible musicians live with, succeed and play with these symptoms – so if you do experience them, it is by no means the end of a vibrant career or love of music, it just takes adjustment.

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, and trust me, you don’t know what a privilege it is to hear. Take care of your ears, music sounds better with them.

* Ed’s note: Joni Mitchell originally sang these lines in her 1970 hit ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. Counting Crows covered the tune with Vanessa Carlton in 2002.

Keep your eyes peeled on musicians4hearing.org for more useful info from Siobhan. She also recommends checking out hearsmart.org for more resources and their noise calculator, which enables you to assess your risk of injury. Stream Siobhan’s tunes at musicbymagnets.bandcamp.com.

This story originally appeared in the Radiothon 2018 edition of The Trip magazine. Subscribers recieve The Trip free in their letterboxes three times a year: in April, August and December. Subscribe to receive the next one, chock full of stories about life at Triple R, the Melbourne music community, political and social issues, and heaps more.