No one wants to have their ability to hear compromised, but if you are musician, this fear is compounded by the fact that your daily pleasure, and perhaps monetary living, depend strongly on this sense. Yes, Beethoven managed, but if we have the choice, let’s keep our hearing intact, right?
And do we have the choice? Obviously, there are some factors outside of our control, but when it comes to the very irritating (and sometimes out-of-your-mind-infuriating) problem of Tinnitus, is it possible there are things musicians can do to prevent it?
For a brief stint in 2011, Soundcheck aired a program called Ear Wars, and in one episode, they feature Dr. Neil Sperling of the New York Otolaryngology Group, who gives us a little more insight into Tinnitus. Tinnitus is the perception of internal sound that usually only the individual can hear. In this way, it’s tricky because it doesn’t have a single causal relation with the body. It’s sound (ear), but it’s also the perception of sound (brain). Most likely, it has been caused by some damage to the ear, but it’s the brain that is trying to make sense of this by sending out a sound of some sort. And this sound can vary greatly. It can be the typical sound we think of when we hear of Tinnitus– a ringing in the ear (and even ringing can vary a lot), but it can be the literal sound of crickets, it might sound like traffic, it might even be a musical song itself (Ally McBeal anyone?). You can hear a sample of various common Tinnitus sounds at the American Tinnitus website here.
The causes of Tinnitus are not entirely known at this point, although it is something that tends to happen in the older population with the natural decline of hearing. Some medications and chemotherapy can cause Tinnitus too. People who have jobs where they are exposed to loud sounds for a long period of time are more at risk (think factory workers), but as for musicians, or people who love listening to music…? The rise of headphones, earbuds, very loud concerts and sound systems–none of these things are exactly good for the ear. It can vary, but the volume, proximity and duration all play a factor. Easy obvious preventions? Turn the volume down. Use speakers when you can. Give yourself breaks.
But all of these tips don’t matter much if you already have Tinnitus, and again, you may have it even though you don’t have any known risks toward developing it. Many people suffer from it thinking there is no treatment, and while there may not be a simple fix, there are some therapies that have been shown to help. First of all, Dr. Sperling recommends that anyone with symptoms see a professional, as Tinnitus is really just that–a symptom–and it could be a symptom of something larger that is treatable (for instance, a tumor, which is rare, but again, is often treatable). If everything else checks out, then know that there are things which can be done to ease Tinnitus. From medications, electrical stimulation, and TMJ treatment, there are options. There are even therapies which are designed to retrain the way your brain perceives the sounds.
In any case, if you suffer from Tinnitus, don’t assume that this will always be your fate. And if you don’t suffer from it now…well…much is out of our hands, but if you have any power to protect your precious ears even a little bit while you can…I would seriously consider doing it. Because to hear the roaring sound of a subway when you’re trying to record an album (or have dinner with a friend or read a book to your child or have a good night’s sleep–for that matter!) is far from ideal.
Share your thoughts: Do you suffer from Tinnitus? Have you found anything helps relieve the sound you hear? How has it affected you in your musical career (or otherwise)? Do you have any advice or tips?