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The handicap of deafness is not in the ear; it is in the mind - Marlee Matlin


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"I've always had a sharp sense of hearing—"sensitive ears," if you will. They were sensitive enough that when I started to play drums at the beginning of my teen years, it was readily apparent that it wasn't going to be any fun unless I used ear protection.

Over the course of the next 15 years or so I'd go to parties/concerts/bars/clubs featuring music that was usually too loud for comfort.  But for whatever reason, it never occurred to me to extend my ear-protecting practices outside of the realm of playing live music. And so, like everybody else who spends time in such environments, sometimes I'd come home with a bit of transitory tinnitus, that ringing in the ears that accompanies you in the quiet hours before you sleep it off. I didn't like it, but for reasons passing understanding I didn't do anything about it.

Then came the night I was outside at a party where I would have been having a lovely time, save that the DJ had his system cranked up way past what was necessary—or even tolerable for the likes of me, despite the fact that I was nowhere near a speaker. Finally it occurred to me that I didn't have to sit and take it. I went to the bathroom to fetch some toilet paper, which I wadded up and shoved in my ears. It wasn't an ideal solution, particularly from a fashion perspective, but it helped me to enjoy the rest of my evening far more than I would have otherwise.

That was the first step on the path to where I am today, which is being a person who has earplugs with him almost everywhere he goes. What amazes me is why I find myself such a rarity. Because you people are killing your ears.

According to the American Hearing Research Foundation, 15% of Americans aged 20 to 69 have high-frequency hearing loss related to occupational or leisure activities, with two-thirds of that group having trouble understanding conversational speech.

You don't need to know anything about acoustics or anatomy to understand the correlation between sound and hearing damage: expose yourself to too much high-volume noise, and you damage your hearing.

What is too loud or too much? As you surely have heard, sound is measured in decibels (db). Normal conversation, for example, is around 60 db. The baseline for damage comes above 85 db without ear protection. That's about the volume of your blender. But you need not pop in earplugs every time you make a smoothie, unless it takes you more than eight hours to get the consistency you like.

As you know from experience, what you hear at a concert or club is far louder than your blender. A list compiled by Purdue University puts "live rock music" between 108 and 114 db. At that level, unprotected exposure for more than 15 minutes puts you in danger of doing damage.

If that gives you pause because you know you've exposed yourself such volumes for far longer than that, it should, since it very possibly means that your hearing is not what it would be otherwise. But because hearing damage is cumulative (excepting cases when a sound is so loud that even momentary exposure is too much), while your hearing won't get better, it certainly can get worse. That's because overly intense air pressure—such as excessive volume—will kill off the hair cells that respond to the vibrations of air that we experience as sound. The more hair cells you kill off, the less you hear.

Because the federal government mandates that employers take steps to monitor and protect employees' hearing for continuous exposure to sounds above 85 decibels, most of the non-age-related hearing loss in the U.S. emanates from leisure activity. That means you, Ms. Musician and Capt. Clubgoer, doing your thang without protecting yourself from the enemy in the air.

But that also means you, Señor Soundguy and Doña DJ, cranking your rig far higher than what's necessary for everybody to get down. I like to feel and not just hear the music as much as the next guy, but I'm infuriated by how far over the line most venues push the sliders. I'll be the first to say that protecting one's hearing in such environments is a question of personal responsibility. Nonetheless, is "I'm not my brother's keeper" really a good argument for knowingly exposing your clientele to physical peril?

The irony of the overloud is that it sounds like shit relative to a mix that is respectful of the particular space in which the music is being played. Get a good sound mix and you can hear all of the elements in play; get a bad one and they get crammed together in a big mush; pump up the volume too high and everything distorts. Even were our ears invincible, from an aesthetic point of hearing you'd do better to impress us with the clarity of your PA than with its power. A troglodyte can crank it up to 11; it takes an artist to find the perfect balance.

Fortunately, a few live-music venues here and there have gotten proactive for their patrons, providing earplugs for events they expect to be particularly loud. It's still a rarity (personally, I've been to a total of two events where earplugs were provided—both at a same venue that is notorious for blaring music so loudly that on multiple occasions I've been driven out despite my earplugs), but some is better than none.

However, you can't rely on anyone to protect your hearing for you. On dozens of occasions at a club or concert someone has seen me all earplugged up and said, "Smart!" What I would reply in those moments, were the music not so loud that it drowned out the possibility of real conversation, is that they, too, can do themselves the same favor I'm doing myself. Foam earplugs can be had online or at stores like Target and Rite Aid for ______. You can stick pairs in your purse, your wallet, your glovebox, the case for whatever instrument you play.

In short, you can enjoy loud music and come home none the worse for wear. Why have it otherwise? With natural aging come challenges aplenty. There's no reason to make it harder on your future self.

But that goes for the music you hear at home, too—or more likely while jogging, at the gym, etc.  We're talking about earbuds, bud. According to the American Osteopathic Association, "Today, 1 in 5 teens has some form of hearing loss—a rate about 30% higher than it was in the 1980s and 1990s—which many experts believe is due, in part, to the increased use of headphones."

While some sources say personal music players can crank out as much as 120 db, even at The Guardian's conservative top-volume estimate of 105 db, just 15 minutes of exposure is enough to do damage. Two basic questions are advised to determine whether you've got the volume too high: 1) Can others hear the music pouring into your ears? 2) Can you hear what's going on around you? If your answer is "yes" to #1 and/or "no" to #2, turn it down.

It's great to get lost in music, but you don't have to suffer hearing loss to do it. More is not always better. Excess tends to lead to diminishing returns. Don't make your ears a case in point."

Source: Greggory Moore, Harming Your Hearing: The Obvious Hows and Whys To Which Many People are Deaf, HealthWorldNet.com,