Throughout these many months of COVID-mandated isolation, fans of live music have pined for the sweet sounds and social interaction of in-person concerts. Plenty of artists have live-streamed mini concerts, but the often-thunderous volume of rock music is nowhere to be found when pumped through computer speakers.
Your brain may yearn for that amplification, but your ears have likely been thankful for the break. Marshall Chasin, AuD, has worked with countless musicians and music fans. He has seen the consequences when passion trumps prudence—sometimes ending in noise-induced hearing loss.
The conundrum is that you love music, and it’s only natural to want it loud. The problem is that all too often you don’t know—how loud is too loud? “As humans, we are wonderful at discerning differences in pitch,” says Chasin, owner of Toronto-based Musicians’ Clinics of Canada. “We know if something is flat or sharp, but we’re not good at discerning differences in loudness. It’s incredible how loud something can be, and we don’t think it’s damaging or potentially damaging—because we’re not very good at discerning differences in loudness.”
Working on the assumption that better hearing equals better quality of life, Chasin urges caution for musicians and music lovers who wish to maintain that love of music. If you’re working in a loud environment during the day, use extra caution and know the safe decibel range, which may be quite a bit less than you think.
“We know that exposure to anything over 85 decibels (dB) will eventually ruin your hearing,” says Chasin, who has worked with rock bands U2 and Rush. “A dial tone on a landline, that’s 85 dB. Your MP3 player on a third volume is around 85 dB. Nobody in their right mind would think that 85 dB is all that loud, but it is damaging. It can create permanent hearing loss.”
When the COVID situation improves and gatherings inevitably come back, people with impaired hearing may not be invited to concerts and parties. The problem is that communication becomes difficult, and socializing can be problematic. “You are gradually selected not to go to parties or be in social situations because you always inappropriately answer, or you don’t seem to hear anyway,” Chasin confirms.
Compensating for a hearing loss by reading lips is common, but ultimately exhausting. “Coincidentally, and luckily perhaps, those sounds that many hard of hearing people cannot hear very well are the ones that are very visible on a person’s face,” Chasin says. “But that takes a toll. You’re doing double duty. Not only are you trying to use your ears throughout the day, but now you’re trying to use your eyes and lip—reading throughout the day. By three o’clock in the afternoon, many people with hearing loss have what we call the 3 PM crash. They just have to withdraw from social situations, because they feel exhausted.”
Ideally, you should take the step of going to see a hearing professional, just as you would see an eye doctor if your vision was failing. However, Wayne J. Staab, PhD, is one audiologist who firmly believes that something is better than nothing. While he emphasizes the value of professional care, he also believes there are good options available to those with milder hearing losses who might benefit from personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) and similar devices. “A couple of years ago, President Trump signed into law the over-the-counter hearing aid bill,” he says. “There are a lot of people who want amplification, but they are not willing to jump into a professional’s office. There are lower-priced options. There are over-the -counter PSAPs that work extremely well for a much lower price.”