marching band

Hearing Loss: The Importance of Noise Prevention for Today’s Musicians and Marching Band Members

A Big Ear, Inc. White Paper Regarding the Risk and Reward of Hearing Protection For College Musicians and Marching Band Members

Introduction

Over 2 million students in the United States play in middle and high school bands. 300,000 of those students go on to play in college bands. Until recently, the noise levels that these students were exposed to went unnoticed as well as the repercussions associated with the resulting damage to their young ears.

A noise-induced hearing loss is without a cure and is permanent. When you are a musician, the most essential instrument you have is your hearing.

Band instruments are handled with care and precision; so should your ears be handled. The hard work and dedication demanded of today’s college musicians are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss causes the student to miss their cue, play the wrong note, or fail to notice their tone is flat or sharp. Along with losing a scholarship due to being unable to perform, or having to give up music, the greater risk is the irreversible damage to their hearing. Noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, is irreversible. It is also entirely preventable.

In this document, we will cover the risk to one’s hearing that college band members are taking without proper ear protection. We’ll cover the effects of being exposed to high decibel levels over time and look at the reward earned by protecting young ears with earplugs that will not compromise the sound quality of the music.

How your ear works?

When sound waves pass through the outer ear, they travel through the ear canal to the eardrum. The eardrum then vibrates with the incoming sound, sending vibrations to three tiny bones in the middle ear: the malleus, incus, and stapes bones. These bones amplify the vibrations and send them to the inner ear. Miniscule hair cells in the inner ear are activated and release neurochemical messengers to your brain. The auditory nerve carries the signal to the brain and translates it into a sound you can understand.

What is decibel?

The sound is measured in decibels (dB). A decibel is the unit of sound used to express the length of a sound wave and measures the degree of loudness. Quiet conversations among 2-3 people range around a 40-50 decibel level. A loud, noisy restaurant registers at 80-90 decibels. After 4-5 hours in loud environments measuring 80-90 decibels, damage to your ear begins. Industrial work environments experience occupational noise-induced hearing loss due to prolonged exposure to loud noise over an extended period.

Similarly, musicians damage their ears with loud practice environments, stadium noise, concert arenas, and heightened acoustic surroundings. The noise measurement in an average middle school and high school orchestra and band exceeds 110 decibels. In comparison, the threshold for pain is 120 decibels. Collegiate band programs fall in the 115-decibel range, and marching band can exceed 130 decibels daily.

These high decibel levels damage the ear every practice and performance. Take it a step further, and add in the stadium noise marching bands and pep bands play over, and the decibel levels increase.

A noise-induced hearing loss is cumulative. Damage to the ear depends on the duration and intensity of exposure as well as the intensity, or loudness, of the sound. Band students are susceptible to noise-induced hearing loss due to the long practice hours with loud instruments and exposure to high decibel levels.

Measured decibel levels in music

The measured decibel levels below represent individual instruments and the sound levels they produce. In a solo capacity, such as personal practice times in small enclosed practice rooms, damage to the ear begins after about 2-3 hours.

In a group capacity such as marching band, concert band, ensemble, and orchestra, the damage begins much earlier:

InstrumentAverage Sound Level
Violin75-85 dB
Flute85-111 dB
Clarinet92-103 dB
French Horn90-106 dB
Trombone85-114 dB
Tuba110-115 dB
Timpani/Bass Drum106-110 dB
InstrumentAverage Sound Level
Cello84-103 dB
Oboe90-94 dB
Saxophone110-115 dB
Mellophone92-112 dB
Trumpet/Cornet108-120 dB
Snare Drum100-115 dB
Cymbals118-121 dB
Standard Noise LevelDamage to ears exposure limit
Marching Band85-115 dB15-20 minutes
Concert Band85-100 dB1 hour 30 minutes
Orchestra/Symphony80-105 dB2 hours
Drumline90-110 dB10-20 minutes

According to a 2003 study performed at Duke University, sound levels measured both indoors and outdoors, with and without percussion showed students were exposed to noise that exceeds 100.

As a result of the study, Duke University band members are now required to wear earplugs.

How does overexposure to loud music affect college students?

Typically, college musicians begin college with eight years of musical experience and exposure to loud sounds. Practicing for at least one hour per day, 3-5 days per week in an environment that exceeds a safe noise level over stimulates the cochlea or inner ear. At the collegiate level, practice and performance time increases as does the performance frequency. Additionally, an event and arena environments, students are exposed to crowd noise and generally play louder to compensate.

Damage to the inner ear has already begun and increased frequency and loudness associated with an increase in practice and performance expected at the college level increase the damage to the ear’s hair cells.

What is noise-induced hearing loss?

Noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, is described as an impairment to one’s hearing as a result of exposure to loud sound. Its symptoms range from a loss of sound frequency range to a change in perception of noise and sound, tinnitus, sound sensitivity, and total loss of sound.

NIHL can occur from repeated exposure to loud sounds, as well as short exposure to loud noises. The damage occurs over time affecting the hearing hair cells, or stereocilia. These cells do not regenerate causing permanent damage to the ear. When the stereocilia are damaged, suffers report distorted sounds, muffled noises, ringing in the ears, difficulty hearing in crowds and difficulty hearing on phone conversations.

The risk and effects of noise-induced hearing loss in musicians

The most challenging issue regarding noise-induced hearing loss is the lack of immediate symptoms. NIHL gradually affects the ability to hear. Symptoms and side-effects are not recognized typically until years later. However, studies show that a loss of hearing leads to an increase in the chances of illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

In the immediate present, damage to one’s ear due to loud noises can impact a college musician both physiologically and psychologically causing:

  • The ears’ hair cells (stereocilia) to be bent or broken permanently
  • Sound to seem dampened/muffled causing musicians to play sharp/flat
  • Missed cues
  • Depression from losing a scholarship or not passing
  • The trouble with social interactions leading to situations of social isolation
  • Tinnitus
  • Loss of cognitive focus
  • Drop in grades

OSHA Noise Regulations (Standard 1910.95(b) (1))requires employers to monitor sound if it equals or exceeds 85 decibels and provide individuals with protective equipment such as earplugs or noise-canceling earphones when employees are exposed to noise levels.

Permissible Noise Exposures OSHA Standards 1910.95(B)(2)

Table G-16

Duration per day (hours)Sound level (dBA slow response)
890
692
495
397
2100
1.5102
1105

The numbers in the table above are designed for industrial and occupational employers and employees subjected to loud machinery and noises. Yet, if you look at the permissible exposure times and decibel levels and compare them with the time and sound levels in a college band environment, you’ll notice that most often, students are exposed to noises 100 dB and above for over 2 hours at a time, exceeding the daily noise exposure limits. Without standard regulations in place for musicians, noise-induced hearing loss reported by patients who are musicians will continue to increase.

How to prevent noise-induced hearing loss?

The only way to cure NIHL is to prevent it. College band members can prevent noise-induced hearing loss by taking preventive measures such as requiring earplugs. Until recently, this was an unacceptable solution as the market only consisted of foam earplugs or generic silicone earplugs that fit poorly, canceled too much sound, dampened intonation, and distorted sound. As such, musicians neglected to protect their hearing.

To combat these issues, Big Ear, Inc. developed The ONE® and they are custom-built Hearing Protection which:

  • Are custom-fit to the individual’s ear for protection and comfort
  • Acclimate musicians to the use of earplugs.
  • Are designed to attenuate across all sound frequencies
  • Have a dual filter system
  • Are constructed with soft-fit material
  • Come with three restriction orifices to gradually train the ear to the earplug, thus eliminating muffled sounds and distorted tones.
  • Come with a removable pop-cord

The ONE® is the only product currently on the market designed to allow the musician to hear both themselves and others in a clear manner without limiting spatial awareness.

How The ONE® works?

The ONE® trains the ear to adapt to earplugs. The two-filter system consists of a nonlinear filter system and an interchangeable filter. The three interchangeable orifices allow the user to reduce the sound they hear. The filters are designed to adapt to the student’s practice and performance environment reducing noise levels by 9 dB, 15 dB, 20dB, and 25 dB.

Premium Dentist Custom Earplugs {The One®}

A removable pop cord can pop in and out while you’re training on the field. The noise reducing plugs give you a scalable solution to train your ears to a manageable decibel level until you graduate to the smooth continuation filter.

The ONE® has multiple mini-orifices that the user can gradually add to the non-linear filter. Each time a plug is inserted, the sound is reduced. This action trains the ear to earplugs, removing distortion and spacial awareness problems. By training the ear, the individual eliminates the traditional problems associated with generic, non-customized earplugs. Sounds, notes, and tones remain as clear as they were without the earplugs, but at a lower decibel level and without the risk of damage to the stereocilia.

Who uses The ONE®?

  • University of South Carolina
  • University of Delaware
  • Newberry College
  • Michigan State University
  • Northern Illinois University
  • University of Nebraska
  • College Band Directors National Association
  • Many, many others.

The reward in wearing earplugs

The benefits for musicians who wear earplugs span their entire lifetime.

Some of the rewards include:

  • A noise-induced hearing loss is prevented
  • Hearing impairment conditions are reduced
  • Harmful sound frequencies are filtered out without jeopardizing the quality
  • Scholarships and chair placements are not at risk
  • Can be worn with marching band hats or headgear comfortably

Conclusion

Extensive research has been concluded regarding the damage to children in contact sports such as football and hockey, pointing to conclusive evidence that injuries sustained in these sports cause irreversible damage. As a result, policies have been put in place to protect students and players.

Until recently, little was known about noise-induced hearing loss. Don’t wait for more evidence of NIHL to protect those ears. As a musician, it is your most important instrument. Wearing earplugs protects ears from irreversible damage and associated health complications later on in life.

Custom fit earplugs for musicians retain spatial awareness at reduced decibel levels and offer a comfortable fit for maximum hearing protection.

Bibliography

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