Don’t let your love of live music wreck your hearing

If you come out of a concert or bar with your ears ringing, there’s a good chance you’ve damaged your hearing. 

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April 18, 2024 - 2:41 PM

The noise from concerts can be ear-splitting — and cause hearing loss. ADITYA CHINCURE/UNSPLASH

One night not long ago, I went to hear a good band at a local bar. I couldn’t stay past five songs.

The volume was deafening, and I mean that literally — as in “if I stay here for more than 15 minutes without earplugs, I might cause permanent damage to my hearing.” I know this because the sound meter on my phone showed sustained levels of 100 decibels, with a peak of 110. That’s enough to damage the delicate hair cells in the inner ear. And this was not an especially loud band. It was typical of local bar band with singer, keyboard, drums, bass and guitar.

Not so long ago, that bar I saw the band in would have been filled with smoke. No longer. A generation or two ago, many in attendance might have thought little of driving home without their seat belts on, or even under the influence of alcohol. Thankfully, today such deeply dangerous behaviors are far less common.

So why don’t we protect our ears the same way?

As for many people, live music is one of the pleasures of my life. My training in college and graduate school was in music; I’ve played in dozens of groups and arranged for big bands and Broadway shows. But unlike many of my music-loving friends, I don’t have hearing loss or tinnitus.

Why am I so “lucky”? I’ve taken measures to protect myself. And I hope after reading this, you will, too.

Suppose you’re sitting in a noisy restaurant. The sound pressure level (or volume) could be around 85 decibels (dB). That band I heard was consistently clocking in at 100 dB. So what’s the big deal? One hundred dB is only about 20 percent more, isn’t it?

No. Decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale, so going from 85 dB to 100 dB is a 3,100 percent jump.

Imagine that a four-piece band is playing at the noisy restaurant level of 85 dB. Say the guitarist has the dial on the amplifier set to five.

Now, let’s magically double that band into an eight-piece — two drummers, two guitarists, two keyboard players and two singers.

With eight musicians, the sound pressure level would increase from 85 dB to 88 dB. Yes, doubling the sound source only adds 3 dB.

Doubling again to a 16-piece band would increase the level to 91 dB.

Now, let’s double the band three more times until we have 128 musicians. You can imagine the noise!

But even with each player performing at the same intensity, their output would measure only 100 dB.

Of course, you’re not going to see a 128-piece band in a bar. But your ears might be contending with the equivalent when the guitarist in the four-piece band turns the knob up and all the other band members follow suit.

If you find this logarithmic measurement confusing, rest assured this is not some plot by scientists but an attempt to deal with values that span a large range. This is the same problem we run into with the Richter scale, where an 8.2 magnitude earthquake is 100 times bigger than a 6.2 earthquake. …

It’s not just the volume level itself that can lead to permanent hearing loss, however. Other factors include the exposure on a given day, the cumulative exposure over years and the frequency (pitch) of the noise.

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