VoiceCouncil will no longer be updated. Articles will still be available for some time.

Blowing Out Your Ears?

How can vocalists surrounded by loud music maintain good hearing for life? A physician, producer and vocal coach share crucial wisdom.

From Dr. Anthony F. Jahn:

Many books have been written on noise-associated hearing loss but let me just highlight a couple of important points, specifically for singers, from the medical perspective.

There is a normal age-related deterioration in high frequency hearing that affects all of us.

At birth, we can hear up to 20,000 Hertz, well beyond the dog whistle frequencies. By our fifties, this has usually dropped down to 8,000 Hertz, still more than adequate (a Pavarotti high “C” is 1024 Hertz) but clearly heading south!

The rate and degree of hearing deterioration is partly hereditary and partly due to your environment. For most of us, however, taking a few simple measures will ensure that your hearing will be adequate until “the final curtain”.

My first suggestion is to calculate your total exposure to loud sounds, both in their duration and intensity.

Occupational safety standards suggest no more than 85 dB over an eight hour day—most concerts are much louder than that. Please don’t forget to include rehearsals and recreational exposure!

You not only make music but you also attend concerts and your risk for aural damage may be even greater when sitting in the audience of a large theater or, worse still, a small club.

That’s why awareness is the first step; begin to notice the levels and duration of your exposure to loud sounds.

From Producer, Engineer and Writer Bill Gibson:

I completely agree with Dr. Jahn’s remarks and from my perspective as a producer, am only too aware that vocalists are easily exposed to too much sound.

Ironically, much of the danger for music lovers lies in their love of music.

Part of the sensation of listening is feeling—we tend to become addicted to total immersion in sound and for those of us who tend toward extremism, it’s easy to suppose that if a little immersion is nice, more might be even better.

In a live concert there is the feeling of the music in the hall; there’s energy in the low-frequency range that can only manifest in a large room; the lows in a concert hall are physically felt in a way that can’t happen in a small room or through headphones.

Unfortunately, the low frequencies that are so dominant in many large venues demand substantial high- and mid-frequency components to match the low-frequency acoustical energy.

In other words, live music is almost always too loud for long-term ear health.

Add to that the fact that our ears tend to desensitize when they are exposed to loud sounds and you can bet that the sound operator continues to build the mix intensity throughout the show, just to keep the vibe alive.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of live music; however, we must understand the environment and protect ourselves.

Concerts are often in excess of 110 dBSPL—that’s very loud and prolonged exposure; such levels of noise can damage your hearing.

Check out the OSHA recommendations for exposure to sound in the workplace. It’s amazing what they have prescribed as safe in short- and long-term working environments.
Notice that their table of Permissible Noise Exposure contains a footnote stating that maximum duration guidelines are cumulative throughout the day.

So Dr. Jahn is right – keep track of your exposure and set yourself some reasonable limits. This advice should extend to your ear-buds as well…

Whether you use an iPod or a Zune or any other MP3 player, there’s a good chance that you are playing your music too loud and running the risk of damaging your ears.

We want to feel the music, like we do in a live show, but when we use ear buds we tend to turn it up louder in an effort to recreate that physical sensation.

There is real danger here and you must use restraint; the reality is that if we keep the volume down a bit, our ears will adjust and we’ll still have a good listening experience.

On the other hand, if we turn it up, our ears will desensitize and we might just turn it up louder. This is obviously a dangerous trend and should be avoided.

Next week, I’ll discuss different types of hearing protection.

From Vocal Coach Leontine Hass

Anthony and Bill have done an excellent job of describing the medical and technological dimensions of hearing; so, I am going to take this discussion in an altogether different direction.

I want to look at hearing metaphorically. What does it mean for the vocalist to truly hear?

There is an art to listening to our true inner voice as opposed to our frantic and over-stimulated minds. For vocalists this means hearing the positive, not just the inner critic reflected and transferred to the perception of the sound we are making.

A difficult task!

Many performers are frantically trying to become whatever it is they once dreamed about becoming, whilst needing to survive financially and, as a result, they lose the ability to listen to their true desires, which shift over time.

I want to share an observation with you about singers who are able to hear the beauty of their own singing, rather than focusing solely on vocal problems.

Singers who love to hear how they want to sculpt a song become natural animals on stage. These singers do not compartmentalize their practice: singing, performing and living are one.

They practice a few steps of a dance routine whilst doing the dishes; they practice their song in the shower, in the car when stuck in traffic; they lie on the grass remembering their lines.

Singing is something they enjoy, an activity that makes them feel better; they stroke their voices while they sing and they do not bash or push their voice.

Their singing is a result of an inner compulsion, rather than listening to their inner critic nagging: ‘I must practice otherwise I will never be any good’.

These performers do not put themselves in to a place where excelling as a singer is always something that is out of their reach—they do not hear only their own vocal problems.

They hear how they want to sculpt a song beautifully and then sing what they hear and that’s the kind of hearing we want—and need—for life.

Next week I will discuss why it is that we hear our own singing voice differently to how others hear it…

Useful Links

On Hearing Loss from the Mayo Clinic

Sound IQ Test

On Hearing for Sound Engineers

The American Speech, Language, Hearing Association

The Merck Manuals On-line Medical Library

Bill Gibson, President of Northwest Music and Recording, has spent the last twenty-five years writing, recording, producing and teaching music. Bill is a best-selling author and has written over thirty books on the subject of recorded and live sound. His recently released six-volume set, The Hal Leonard Recording Method, is already receiving high praise for its user-friendly approach.

Leontine Hass is an experienced vocal coach specializing in teaching contemporary pop/rock/musical theatre singers (many of whom are performing in London’s West End). Leontine has a busy private practice in London and is the Founder/Director of the Associated Studios and the Advanced Performers Studio, a studio for professional actors and singers.

Dr. Anthony F. Jahn is an internationally renowned otolaryngologist based in Manhattan with a subspecialty interest in the professional voice. His practice includes classical and popular singers. Dr. Jahn holds academic appointments at Columbia University and Westminster Choir College in Princeton, and is Medical Director at the Metropolitan Opera and Jazz at Lincoln Center. For the last seventeen years, Dr. Jahn has authored a popular monthly medical advice column in Classical Singer Magazine.

  • brettjlee

    loved the article
    very interesting
    explains a few of my own problems
    Problem is being a guitarist I like the noise and so does the audience
    I try to control it with my in ears
    but sometimes it gets away
    and I pay for it the next day

  • One year ago I suddenly started having trouble with my right side hearing. Now that ear is almost 50% lost and I have a permanent annoying tinnitus. (For Dr.Jahn: I´ve got an iac an – or vs – treated with gk back in November). You will never appreciate your hearing enough until it is too late. I urge all of you who dig in this site to protect your ears with earplugs. The emotions you associate with high volumes are actually related with the vibrations you feel on your body. So, you can still enjoy music while wearing this things, though only safer. Even more, I feel I get less tired with them: heavy noise can cause stress.

  • Tommie Slade

    Hi my name is Tommie. I have a hearing deficit in my right ear. maybe 40-50%. How can I still be an effective singer?

  • In my experience I've been rendered the most damage from guitar players…those cats just don't get it. I even had one kid tell me, “Well, I don't want to turn down coz' I like the way the air from the speakers feels when it moves my pant legs.” I sincerely replied, “You're about to experience how much I enjoy the feeling I get from the air of my foot kicking in your speakers!!!”

    I can remember one band in particular…Fornikulture…we were a progressive metal band of the mid-90s…everybody wanted to be a lead…that means = lead drums, lead rhythm guitar, lead bass..blah, blah, blah…you get the point…too much of everything. I actually bought a megaphone to be heard over the band. Anyway, we spent a good portion of many practices sitting sideline to the two guitarist’s arguments about volume. See, what most guitar players never realize is that they just don't have ears on their knee caps, which is where most of the volume lands when standing next to their cabinet. Meanwhile, the rest of our ears were getting murdered by volume.

    Since we were a 6 piece in room no larger than a 1 car garage, I recommended that they switch out where their cabinets were located, on opposite sides of the room…IOW, keep their amp heads near them but trade out cabs so that the throw of the speakers would be more audible to both of them. They scoffed and said no way!

    Too bad for them…I showed up a couple of hours early the next practice and the keyboard player and I took the time to switch the two guitar cabinets around. When they got to practice their amps were in the same place and neither axe man noticed we had swapped out there cabs. Everyone was like “Wow, it just sounds so good tonight…we can hear everything.” We didn't make them privy to the new arrangement until after practice…hahaha…egg on their faces…but it proved a valuable point and we never switched back when in confined spaces. Sometimes you have to take things into your own hands :)



  • Yes i agreed with what you have written.I must say you have smart written skills.Liked it  a lot.Thanks for sharing article regarding google plus.Keep sharing in future too.