“My ‘walkman’ is killing my hearing”

Pete Townshend et al..

The ‘walkman kills hearing’ story is doing the rounds again… so I thought a few facts would help.

Firstly, a significant way to damage your hearing without noticing is to listen to the same frequencies for a prolonged time. This can be machine noise in an office, or on a plane, train, etc. This happens even at quite low levels of noise (ie. not just a factory with a loud whining machine). Anything that is “sustained” is bad.

The way to kill off your hearing at a gig is usually due to the sound system being pushed to the point of distortion – systems pushed to distortion create noise – this means “sustained noise” – that push down all of the “hairs” that you use to hear. Doing this at loud levels is why sometimes your ears really “ring” after some gigs, and not others. It’s about the distortion level, the loudness and the duration.

So, you can reduce the impact to your hearing by
1) Get good in-ear headphones. These will block out “outside” noise and therefore can listen at a lower level – the single best thing you can do. High quality ‘phones should also not distort at high levels. In-ear will also leak less and therefore not annoy your neighbours…
2) Listen at reasonable levels, don’t crack any kit upto 10, they all distort, especially in the bass and highest frequencies.
3) Have breaks. If you’re on the tube/train/plane you can even leave your in-ear headphones in your ears but not play any music. This will give them a rest from the music and the noise of the engines/screeching of brakes/etc.

Non in-ear ‘phones will not block out external noise, so I guarantee you’ll crank up the volume in public spaces thus damaging your ears more and causing distortion.

And more…
At gigs, and yes it’s a bit weird, but wear earplugs (the in-ear foam ones are very comfy).

There are 3 massive benefits to this:
1) Even with good PA, gigs are usually so loud that they saturate your hearing capacity, so wearing earplugs actually enables you to hear the music more clearly, while still letting your bones shake with the bass. Trust me – try going to a gig and putting in the plugs before the start – take them out after 30 mins and you’ll feel like it’s so loud you’ll put them straight back in.
2) When your friends shout in your ear they wont actually cause you pain and further deafness (the air pressure wave of someone screaming in your ear is really quite dangerous!) and you’ll be able to hear them *much* more easily. Even if you dont have ear plugs, the best way to hear someone at a gig is to stick your finger in your ear.
3) you can go and stand next to the PA stack to maximise bone-shaking without going deaf overnight….

More theory…
Remember that your ears are the single most sensitive measuring device in your body. It’s only relatively recently that we’ve been able to make equipment that sensitive. However, they are also very good at recovery and “bouncing back”, but if you flatten them for too long with sustained noise and pressure, they’ll stay down and you’ll be deaf.

Finally, you could change to listening only to very spectrally rich music with a lot of dynamic range, of which classical is the best fit… 😉