Meeting the Hearing Needs of Musicians in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill

Professional musicians are a unique group of professionals who depend heavily on their hearing for their livelihoods. Musicians need to be able to clearly hear the subtleties of instrumental and vocal performances. At the same time, musicians need to protect their hearing from damage from overly loud music. Hearing loss can interfere with the ability to hear notes in certain pitch ranges, hear pitch differences, or notice changes in timbre and harmonics.

Music-Induced Hearing Loss

Unfortunately, Music-Induced Hearing Loss (MIHL) is an all too common side effect of being a musician, even a hobbyist. The common notion is that rock and pop musicians are the only ones who are at risk, and that classical musicians are not. This is not true, however, as many classical instruments and instrument groups can produce extremely loud sounds that are damaging to hearing. Musicians who sit in front of the trumpets, for example, can be regularly exposed to sounds above 110 dBA. Sounds that are this loud have the capability to damage hearing permanently in a matter of minutes to under an hour, depending on the susceptibility of the individual to MIHL.

Rock and pop musicians playing with amplified instruments are unfortunately exposed to fairly constant levels of loud music. Rock music at your average club or stadium performance is more “evenly” or constantly loud (as opposed to the changing and dynamic, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud nature of classical music). This means that after your average rock performance, a musician (and an audience member for that matter) can be exposed to more damaging sound overall than you would find for a classical performance. Rock concerts are fairly regularly measured at 105-113 dBA. This means that permanent hearing damage can occur in a matter of minutes, depending on the loudness and the individual susceptibility of a person to MIHL.

At the UNC Hearing and Communication Center, we take protecting musicians’ hearing seriously. Here are several ways to enjoy music while preserving your hearing:

This is one of the best ways to protect a musician’s hearing. Not only can they be worn while performing, they can used for watching others perform, and protect hearing in the process. Musician’s earplugs are custom molded to each individual’s ear, so the fit of the plug is comfortable for long periods of time. Also, due to the custom-molded nature of the plug, it will stay in the ear in the proper position even with a lot of jaw movement; an important consideration for singers.

musicians earplugs
musicians earplugs

In terms of fidelity of sound, musician’s earplugs offer the best and more accurate sound filtering. Each plug has a filter that is specifically designed to give a “flat attenuation” of sound. This means that the plug reduce the overall loudness of the music without interfering with the balance of pitch ranges. In other words, the sound is safer to listen to, but the highs are still clear and defined, and bass and mid ranges are not exaggerated.

The filters are removable, and are available in 9dB, 15dB, and 25dB filters. Your audiologist can help you choose which level is right for you based on your instrument type, how often and for how long you practice, your performances, and how many shows you go to as an audience member.

To get musician’s earplugs, you need earmold impressions done by an audiologist. An earmold impression is a mold of the ear, made by your audiologist using a similar type of procedure and material that dentists use for teeth impressions. Earmold impressions for musician’s plugs need to be made in a very specific way to ensure proper fit and sound from the plugs. Contact the UNC Hearing and Communication Center if you need musician’s earplugs and we can take the proper earmold impressions and select and order plugs for you.  Musician’s earplugs, and the services of the audiologist in the fitting and selection process, typically cost between $120-200 total depending on where you obtain them.

These are earplugs that are manufactured in large quantities by hearing protection device companies. They typically come in a few sizes that fit many peoples’ ears, but not all. The sound reduction (attenuation) of these earplugs is not typically as “flat” as that of musician’s plugs. Therefore, depending on the type of plugs used, the music may be altered somewhat, and not have a truly “natural” sound. However, the sound is much better than using standard foam earplugs, which severely alter the pitch balance of sounds and muffle music, especially in the highs.

Filtered Earplugs
Filtered Earplugs

All in all, these are a good option for a reasonably flat and balanced sound for a much lower price than custom fitted musician’s earplugs. A Companies like Westone and Etymotic Research offer products such as these pictured above. The well-regarded Etymotic ETY20 plugs, (pictured) can be obtained for approximately $20 on various online retail sites. Westone Filtered Earplugs can range from $20-60 and are also available online.

In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) are custom molded earphones that are tailored for each individual’s ear. Inside each IEM is an array of small speakers (usually 2-5 speakers) that provide a hi-fi reproduction of sound that is fed into the performer’s ear. IEMs take their name from the fact that the performing musician is using a speaker(s) in their ear to monitor their performance, as opposed to a classic stage monitor speaker which is typically in front of the musician on the floor.

In-ear monitors
In-ear monitors

The volume of IEMs can be controlled just like a standard set of earphones.  IEMs are unique in that they provide a rehearsing or performing musician the ability to hear the house mix (including monitoring their own performance) through these custom earphones at a comfortable and safe volume. At the same time, the IEMs block external sound, protecting the musician from excessive noise from stage monitors, house speakers, or crowd noise.

Typically the IEMs are fed from the house sound system and may be attached to a wireless transmitter so that a performer’s movements are not restricted. IEMs offer hearing protection and a very balanced and clear sound at the same time. There are many options for IEMs from companies such as Westone, Ultimate Ears, and 64 Audio. IEMs can be custom designed and colored, and offer many choices in terms of speaker number and placement within the earpiece, and other features that may be tailored to an individual. Prices range from around $300-$1500 for custom-molded IEMs.

IEMs require extremely carefully and professionally done earmold impressions by an audiologist for them to fit properly and sound the way they should. Each part of the earmold impression must be perfect for the manufacturer of the IEM to make a well-functioning product in terms of its hearing protection value, comfort, and hi-fi sound. Contact the UNC HCC if you need earmold impressions or IEMs and we will be able to get you the proper type of ear impressions for this purpose.

These are generically available earplugs that can be found at any local drugstore, grocery store, convenience store, and from various online retailers. These plugs tend to have a very good hearing protection function (if properly inserted), and are able to block very loud music or other noises. These foam or rubber plugs are generically manufactured, so they may not fit well or comfortably in some people’s ears. Those with small or “curved” ear canals may find it uncomfortable to insert or wear some of these plugs for long periods of time.

Foam Earplugs
Foam Earplugs

In terms of their sound reduction, or attenuation, these plugs tend to severely impact the balance of pitch ranges of music. These plugs often reduce the high frequencies by a very large amount, and much more so that the low frequencies. The result is that music often sounds “muffled” or “fuzzy”. Musicians generally don’t prefer to wear these plugs while performing or listening as an audience member due to the way it interferes with the fidelity of the music. However, they are extremely inexpensive, highly available, and a good option to protect hearing if a musician does not have any of the earplugs or hearing protection options shown above.

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An ear impression is a mold of your ear that reproduces the depth, curvature and shape of your ear. It is used to make custom-fitted products such as musician’s earplugs and In-Ear-Monitors (IEMs).

Taking an ear impression
Taking an ear impression

Earmold impressions are typically done by an audiologist using several instruments. First, the audiologist will examine the ears with an otoscope or ear light. They will look for the overall anatomical structure of the ear, which may affect the impression. Also, any excessive wax should be removed prior to an earmold impression as it will alter the shape of the impression and may interfere with the functioning of the final product.

Then, the audiologist will place a cotton block deeply in the ear to mark the end of the impression. For musician’s products, a bite block is often used to hold the mouth open during the impression curing. The audiologist then fills the ear with a quick drying silicone compound that will harden in 5-10 minutes. After that, the impression is removed and the audiologist will examine the ears again following the procedure.

Ear Impressions
Ear Impressions

Ear impressions for use in making products for musicians have to be very exacting. They have to be made from the proper material, using the appropriate techniques, and be perfectly and fully formed, even showing the deeper parts of the ear. If an ear mold impression is not made properly, it is very likely that a custom-made product will not be comfortable in the ear, will not protect hearing, or will not deliver a high fidelity sound. Make sure to see your audiologist for an earmold impression for any type of musician’s related product.