Musicians treasure their hearing more than most, but often put it at the most risk. Many individuals may choose not to use hearing protection because of the misconception that it reduces the sound quality of the music. This article explains how earplugs for musicians work to protect their hearing and explores what musician earplugs are available at the moment.
How to identify dangerously loud music levels
Permanent hearing loss can be caused by exposure to a single extremely loud sound. Most times, however, it is rather caused by prolonged or repeated exposure to loud sounds. Any sound louder than 85 decibels (dB) has the potential to cause hearing loss, depending on the amount of time you are exposed. For example, 8 hours of exposure to an 85 dB sound can be just as harmful as 15 minutes of exposure to a 100 dB sound.
Musicians are exposed to many dangerously loud sounds, such as their own and others people’s instruments, speakers, and monitors. Consider that the volume of personal listening devices can reach 110 dB. Unamplified musical instruments, such as the clarinet or trombone, can be as high as 114 dB, and drums as high as 120 dB. Rock concerts or symphonies are approximately 120 dB. To determine if you are putting your hearing at risk, you can measure the noise levels you are exposed to. An easy way to do this is by using free sound level meter applications on your mobile phone, such as the NIOSH sound level meter app.
How can you protect your hearing?
Simply blocking your ears with a standard solid earplug is not appropriate for musicians who want to reduce or ‘attenuate’ music to safe levels. If you were to listen to music while blocking your ears with your fingers, you may notice that the volume is softer but sounds muffled and that the quality is not the same. That’s because our ear canals naturally increase the loudness of higher pitches (frequencies) that enter the ear, which they cannot do when they are plugged. To prevent the muffled sound caused by blocking the ears, musician earplugs are made with specialized filters that mimic what the ear canal does to higher frequencies. These filters attenuate all frequencies equally in order to keep the full spectrum and reproducibility of music. The filters allow music to sound exactly as it normally would but at reduced levels.
Musician earplugs also work well for concertgoers. According to some suppliers, they may also be appropriate for dentists, flight attendants, and bartenders who are exposed to dangerous noise levels and who also still need to hear speech clearly.
What musician earplugs are on the market?
There are two styles of earplugs:
- Universal-fit earplugs: Some universal-fit or ready-fit products are available in one-size-fits-most, such as Etymotic Research ER20 High-Fidelity Earplugs. Others come with more than one-size shells, such as Eargasm High Fidelity Earplugs.
- Custom-fit earplugs: These are molded to fit the exact shape and size of your ear, such as ER Series Musician Earplugs. Manufacturers of custom-fit earplugs require that you send them impressions of your ear. They may suggest that you have them made by a local provider or hearing health professional, or that you make them yourself with do-it-yourself impression kits.
The noise reduction ability or ‘attenuation level’ of musician earplugs are determined by their filters. Generally, there are three offerings:
- Some products come with one standard filter, such as Eargasm High Fidelity Earplugs, which have an attenuation level of up to 21 dB.
- With other products, you need to specify the filter you require when you order, such as ER Series Musician Earplugs, which are available with attenuation levels of 9, 15, and 25 dB.
- Some products have interchangeable filters that allow you to change the filter depending on the level of sound you will be exposed to. Alpine Hearing Protection MusicSafe Classic Earplugs contain two sets of filters for medium and high attenuation. MEE Flat Response Custom Ear Plugs can be ordered with filters of 10, 15, and/or 25 dB attenuation levels to be used interchangeably.
Electronic musician earplugs are also available, such as Etymotic Research MP9-15 MusicPRO High-Fidelity Electronic Earplugs. They constantly monitor sound levels in your environment and automatically reduce dangerously loud sounds when necessary.
Which musician earplug is right for you?
Universal-fit earplugs don’t require the fuss of having an earmold impression taken and are more cost-effective than custom-fit earplugs. Custom-fit earplugs are often a better fit and more comfortable than universal-fit earplugs.
To determine if you require a single or interchangeable filter, consider the variability of the situations you find yourself in. Earplugs with a single filter will work if most of the settings you are in are acoustically similar. Interchangeable filters would be more suitable if you are in variable situations; for example, performances may be louder and require more attenuation than rehearsals.
It is also useful to measure the loudness of your environment using a sound level meter app. Afterward, consider what level of attenuation you need in order for those levels to be safe (below 85 dB). Etymotic Research recommends an attenuation level of 9 dB for string instruments, vocalists, and acoustic guitar; 25 dB for brass, percussion, and amplified instruments; and 15 dB for most other scenarios.
How are musician earplugs different from other earplugs?
Solid earplugs, which do not have filters, generally provide the greatest level of protection and are used in environments with very high noise levels. They are suitable for use in industrial settings, such as construction sites and factories, by motorcyclists, and as sleeping earplugs. Full Shell Custom Earplugs provide up to 37 dB attenuation. Earplugs that provide such a high level of protection can be dangerous to use if caution is not taken.
When people need to communicate in very loud environments, solid earplugs are not appropriate. There are many filtered earplugs on the market that use specialized filters to reduce loud sounds but allow speech to pass through. Protect Ear dB Blocker achieves this by using a “frequency tuned filter”. The filter in Alpine WorkSafe Earplugs allows speech through at its normal volume and only reduces dangerously loud sounds.
Shooting earplugs are quite different from musician earplugs because the sounds they protect you from are very different. As gunfire is much louder than music, shooting earplugs have higher attenuation levels than musician earplugs. Gunfire is a sudden or ‘impulse’ sound compared to music which is continuous, therefore the filter mechanisms work differently. They provide gentle attenuation to speech and environmental sounds but react instantly to sudden pressure changes caused by loud impulse sounds. Safariland In-Ear Impulse Hearing Protection attenuates continuous sounds by 13 dB and sudden loud sounds by 33 dB. Electronic earplugs for shooting, such as Etymotic GunsportPro Earplugs, are also popular.
Protect your hearing
Musician Chris Martin’s words ring true: “Looking after your ears is, unfortunately, something you don’t think about until there’s a problem.” He and other musicians such as Niel Young, Ozzy Osbourne, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, and Pete Townsend have suffered the consequences of not protecting their hearing. Don’t join this list; instead, take advice from Eric Clapton himself: “Take care and wear plugs.”