Protecting a Singer’s Hearing — Vital

Protect your hearing!

This column was prompted by a simple question from one of our readers:

“What can I, as a classical singer, do to protect my hearing?”

 The answer is not simple, but important. Our sense of hearing, important whether you sing or not, is especially vital to musicians, and merit life- long attention and care.

Our ears, like our other sense organs, have evolved eons ago to alert us to sounds that are important for our survival. At birth, an infant can hear up to 20,000 vibrations per second, but as adults we gradually lose our higher frequencies. Unlike bats, which need to hear at ultrasonic levels, and whales, which live by infrasonic water-borne vibrations, our hearing is maximally sensitive around 1,000 cycles per second.  Our frequency range, 250 to around 8,000 cycles per second, not coincidentally embraces the frequencies of speech, music and other sounds that are part of our lives. The ears are meant to alert us to transient sounds or changes in sound, and are most effective when these sounds occur against a quiet back ground. The ears are also more sensitive at lower levels of loudness, and with excessively loud sounds, the ear saturates, and eventually sustains damage.

Okay. Now, let’s take those ears, optimally equipped to pick up twigs cracking  in the caveman’s forest world, and plunk it down in mid-town Manhattan . The ears are now constantly bombarded by noise, sounds ever louder and competing with each other to be heard. Our streets, restaurants, department stores are awash in excessive and loud sound, whether music, ambulances, or construction noise.  

Constant noise can, over time, damage the inner ears, as well as fatigue the brain. This noise, perhaps with other factors in the urban world, such as smoking, air pollution and a rich diet, likely accelerates the ear’s aging process, causing decreased hearing. A classic study, by Dr. Samuel Rosen, looked at two populations in Africa, one group rural farmers, the second genetically identical group in an urban and noisy environment. The urban dwellers had significantly decreased hearing with age. The farmers and herders had almost no hearing loss, even at an advanced age.

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Why are the ears so vulnerable? There are many reasons. One, they were never meant to be constantly saturated with excessive noise. Another reason has to do with circulation. Unlike many other parts of the body, the ears are supplied by only one artery, with no backup circulation. If that artery is narrowed, whether due to fatty deposits, nicotine,  or constriction due to noise, the ear received less oxygen, and are more likely to deteriorate.

Now, what can you, a singer who lives by Mozart and not Muzak, do to protect and preserve your hearing over a long and hopefully professionally productive life time? I have several practical suggestions. And, I should add, these are not just for singers or musicians, but everyone for whom hearing is important.

Begin by looking at your relatives- does hearing loss run in your family? Do many older relatives wear hearing aids? If the answer is yes, you are likely more vulnerable, but don’t let this discourage you. Rather, it should spur you on to take even better  care of your ears.

I recommend that you become  generally aware of the noise in your environment. There are several free sound meter Apps available for your iPhone, which allow you to measure, and then either avoid or minimize excessive noise exposure. Download one, and check the noise level around you!  Considering that OSHA considers work place noise over 85 dB (for an 8 hour day) to be damaging to the ears, you will be surprised at what your ears need to put up with on a daily basis. Many restaurants and bars are far in excess of this, and the higher the dB level, the less time it takes for permanent ear damage .For every 3 dBs above 85 dBs, the permissible time for exposure before noise damage is cut in half: if you are in a 95 dB environment, perhaps getting a drink at a noisy night club, you maximum permissible exposure time is less than one hour before possible permanent damage.

How can we use this information? Avoid  unnecessarily noisy environments if possible. Meet your friends at quieter social venues. If you need a day job, try to find one which is not so noisy. Many singers work in restaurants- the tips are great, but for your ears, an office job might be better.

I also recommend that you carry ear plugs with you. I go to a lot of concerts (opera, jazz, etc), and at times unexpectedly  find myself in a situation (usually with amplified music) where to sound level is excessive. At the risk of looking eccentric, out come those ear plugs! If you are willing to invest in high fidelity (“musicians’s”) ear plugs, you can get these custom made by an  audiologist. Musicians’ plugs reduce all frequencies equally, so the sound you do hear is in the correct frequency proportion, rather than losing all the highs, as you might with store-bought plugs. I have a number of musician patients who use these, especially if they sit in the theater pit in front of the brass or percussion section.

Depending on how much time you need to spend in noise, such as walking the streets of New York, you should also consider getting noise cancellation head phones. These are head phones  (there is now a smaller ear level version), which block constant noise by generating negative sound cancelling waves. Not cheap, but they dramatically lower ambient noise levels, and also great for airplane trips.

Finally, avoid those lifestyle habits which may reduce circulation to the inner ear. No smoking, of course, but also consider a healthy diet. Given your age and other health issues, consider foods that improve the circulation, or  perhaps taking a mild blood thinner, such as a baby aspirin (after checking with your doctor). If you enjoy riding motor cycles, sports shooting, and rock concerts, always wear ear protection: even a single loud blast of sound can permanently damage your hearing. Examine  your exercise routine. Those cycling classes are very noisy, and do you really need to run with music blasting into your ear through ear buds?

As our world grows ever louder, our ears are assaulted by an increasingly hostile acoustic environment, coping with  levels of noise that they were never meant to deal with. To preserve your hearing, you need first to become objectively aware of your daily noise exposure, and then consider taking some of the measures I outlined above to protect this precious, and for musicians, vital, sense.


Anthony Jahn, M.D.

Anthony Jahn M.D. is an otolaryngologist with a subspecialty interest in ear diseases, disorders of hearing and balance, and disorders of the voice. He is a professor of clinical otolaryngology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and is the noted author of Care of the Professional Voice. For more resources, go to his website