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For Musicians, Hearing Loss Is 'More Common Than One Would Think,' Audiologist Says

Eric Clapton, pictured here performing in 2017 in Inglewood, Calif., is one prominent musician coping with hearing loss. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Eric Clapton, pictured here performing in 2017 in Inglewood, Calif., is one prominent musician coping with hearing loss. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

A career in music can be hard on your ears — and the issue of hearing loss in the industry might be even worse for classical musicians.

Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd speaks with audiologist Marshall Chasin, who works with musicians who are losing their hearing. He says hearing loss among musicians is “very common, more common than one would think.”

“Hearing loss is not something that shows up after one day or even after one year,” Chasin says. “It shows up after 20 or 30 years of playing or being exposed to loud noise or loud music.”

Interview Highlights

On the early signs of hearing loss

“Usually, it’s painless. There’s no outward sign. Your ears don’t bleed, for example. But it’s usually your friends and your family that might notice long before the individual does. You may hear some ringing or tinnitus in the ears. When it gets a little bit more significant, you can hear pitch perception problems. So let’s say you’re trying to play C, but you hear it slightly flat as a B or a B flat. Both the ringing in the ears and the pitch perception problems can be career threatening, but until that happens, many musicians don’t realize they have a hearing loss.”

On why classical musicians are more susceptible to hearing loss

“It turns out that classical music is actually more damaging than rock ‘n’ roll. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but if you think about it, it makes a little bit of sense. A rock ‘n’ roller might pick up their guitar on a Friday night gig, and may not even practice or touch their music for another week or two until the next gig. In contrast, a classical musician plays four, five hours a day practicing, they may teach one or two hours a day, and then they have four or five, or maybe seven or eight, different performances every week. So even though the spot intensity might be greater for a rock ‘n’ roll set, if you take the dose that they get — the number of hours per week you’re playing — for a classical musician, it’s much, much greater. There are other reasons as well. It turns out that if you dislike the music, it is more damaging to hearing.

“These data have been around since the early ’70s. We’re not too sure of all the reasons, but we do know that when you’re disliking something, you have a higher stress level. And believe it or not, the biochemistry of the air changes, and it makes you slightly more susceptible to hearing loss. It’s called glutamate ototoxicity.

“Classical musicians not only play more hours a week than a rock ‘n’ roller, but many classical musicians play in an environment that is not ideal. Usually they have no choice over the selection of the music. Depending on the environment they’re in, there may be some labor relations difficulties. You may turn around and complain to the trumpet section, and in some cases, it’s not unheard of that the trumpet section may play louder just because they’re pissed off at you. In a rock ‘n’ roll band, you usually play the music that you would like to play, so you’re happy about it. So the whole labor relations issue and the stress that goes on in a classical venue is much much more dominant and poorer than in a rock ‘n’ roll environment.”

On how he helps musicians cope with hearing loss

“Well, there are many, many things that you can do, and it all starts when they’re 14 years old, when they’re in the youth orchestras. And you educate them about hearing loss being very slow and gradual and painless. You educate them that a damaging or potentially damaging noise is not all that loud. For example, a dial tone on a telephone is 85 decibels. Nobody in their right mind would think that a dial tone was loud, but it is. It’s loud enough such that if you listen to it long enough, it would cause a permanent hearing loss from that sound. Since 1988, there are flat hearing protectors — that is, ear plugs that a musician can use — where it treats the bass note — the left hand side of the piano keyboard — identically like right side of the piano keyboard — the treble notes — such that music still sounds like music. They can hear all the subtleties they need to hear, but it’s taken from a damaging to a nondamaging level. In fact. I’ve done some work with a Canadian national youth orchestra for many, many years where we supply them with hearing protection.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.