January 14, 2014 at 1:45 p.m. EST
Last year, Grimes cancelled tour dates because of her struggle with tinnitus. Photo by Daniel Cavazos.
A few months ago while photographing a concert in Montreal, I saw something I'd never seen at a show before: audience members covering their ears.
That image came back to me a little while later, when Grimes revealed her struggle with tinnitus and tweeted that the ringing in her ears was so loud she couldn’t sleep. I thought of it again when I read an interview with Zach Hill of Death Grips, in which he mentioned the ear blockage he experienced as a result of lifelong exposure to loud music. Then I came across a story about a music fan who killed himself over chronic hearing damage incurred at a concert. And another. And then, eight others —before unearthing a jarring world of message board threads dedicated to suicidal thoughts that result from tinnitus .
Tinnitus is a neurological problem that originates in the brain, involving miscommunication between noise-damaged sensory cells; the result is a continuous ringing sound in the ears. Tinnitus is permanent. Once sensitive hair cells are damaged, they can no longer transmit impulses to the auditory nerve and to the brain. 50 million Americans suffer from tinnitus (2 million become so debilitated by unrelenting ringing that they are incapable of carrying out normal daily activities), and musicians are at significantly higher risk than the general population. The only other group who suffer so ubiquitous from hearing damage are GIs exposed to wartime explosions.
Which leads me to wonder: If musicians and listeners are both suffering as a result of exposure to loud music, then why don’t venues just turn the volume down?
Nick Cageao, head of audio at Saint Vitus bar in Brooklyn, says the typical show at his venue ranges from around 98db (louder than a power drill) to 115db (20 db louder than the level at which sustained exposure may result in hearing loss). Tests of this sound level on rats have ruptured blood vessel walls.
Cageao says he tries to wear earplugs whenever possible—he’s actually endorsed by a company called Etymotic. who make a music pro series of hi-def earplugs. Like most of us, though, he often forgets to put them in. "I have some pretty harsh hearing damage around 4/5 khz and a persistent ring," he admits.
At her clinic at the New York Hearing Center. Kathy Feng has seen many patients with temporary hearing damage from rock concerts—but, reassuringly, she tells me that their damage is rarely full-blown tinnitus. "The degree of hearing damage [from loud music] has a lot to do with how long the person was exposed to dangerous levels of noise," says a representative from her team, who (much to the support of my mounting hypochondria) points out that riding the subway is also bad for
your ears. (Cell phone usage also increases your risk of tinnitus .)
Prolonged exposure increases the risk of permanent damage. According to Phonak audiologist Daniela-Simone Feit, our ears need about 10 hours of rest in between bouts of extreme noise. Marcus Rimondini, a audio technician who works various venues in Australia, backs this up. "A lot of the older audio technicians who I've worked with, who started working through the 70s, 80s and 90s, always tell me how damaged their hearing is. The same goes for band managers who are just attending gig after gig."
There's a persistent notion that earplugs "lessen" the concert experience by cutting out important frequencies—though many professionals contend that's not necessarily true.
When properly inserted, foam earplugs block out dangerous frequencies. Custom earplugs, like those Cageao mentions, are made by taking an impression in the ear and then grafting a silicon earpiece to fit the mold. (Feng makes them at her clinic, usually for professional musicians.) Silicon won’t flex or shrink, and filters can be ordered to customize what sound frequencies can enter the transmitter, though you have to order them separately (and for a price).
Most agree that if earplugs are going to "cut out" any important sounds, it’ll be vocals, which sit on the high end of the mix and are hardest to capture because of the artist’s distance from the mic and the fact that they are constantly moving. Audiologists, however, agree that vocals aren’t loud enough to be blocked out even from cheap earplugs, which are designed to cut out only the dangerous frequencies. Some, like Cageao, think that earplugs might even benefit the listening experience by cancelling out extraneous noise and "crappy frequencies," thus making the sound a little more compressed and even.
If you’re wondering why music is played so loudly to begin with, it varies—and it’s not going to change, because it’s often hard to control. "Most [artists] just want to be able to hear themselves clearly and ‘feel’ loud," says David Lefcort, an audio engineer in NYC (and former Pitchfork intern). There are legal limits on how loud a club can get, but the volume is usually set at a threshold that’s already considered "dangerous." A small room traps sound more effectively than a large one, and a full room also responds differently than an empty one (you’re better off in a crowd). Concrete reverberates sound (it’s a good idea to wear earplugs at a basement show) and the closer you are to the stage, the louder it will be.
It seems like the largest resistance to earplugs is cultural. Our social climate relegates earplugs to the same category as sunscreen and contraceptives—proactive measures that are easily mocked only because we secretly know how important they are. "I don't think the answer is changing the way music is performed," Lefcort says. "It's on the listeners to protect themselves."