Our ears are pretty sensitive things. Though they have some safeguards built-in, they can be hurt badly by not taking the proper precautions. Doubly so for DJs. I should know, I’ve damaged mine and am now living with the consequences. Along the way (trust me on this one) I’ve learned more than I ever would have liked to about what’s going on with my own ears, and the dangers DJs face in general when it comes to their hearing.
And while this is not a full medical explanation of why things are the way they are and what happens exactly when they go wrong, it is all the detail I hope you’ll ever need to know. Learn from my mistakes and make this the only article you ever need to read about hearing protection as a DJ. Thank me for it later.
How hearing is meant to work
So first off, what makes your ears “hear” music or sound? Sound is nothing but air compressing and expanding, making “waves”. When sound hits your ears (which are positioned in such a manner that you hear sound better coming from the front than the back, and of which you have two to make it possible to place sounds better), the airwaves hit the eardrum. That starts to move in sync with the sounds that hit it and the waves are thus transferred to your inner ear.
In your inner ear there is a big “field” of little hairs, and these hairs react to different soundwaves, depending on the frequency. So there are hairs that register bass, mid-frequency, highs and so on. When the sound reaches the hairs and moves them, they send a tiny little electric signal through the hearing nerve to your brain. Several groups of braincells are dedicated to decoding these frequency band messages, and you “hear” the sound. So far, all is well…
What happens when you get older
As you grow older, all kinds of things start happening to your body, including to your ears:
- Loss of frequencies – You will start losing hearing of the higher frequencies first. While a baby hears sounds up to at least 20kHz, by the time you reach 60+ you might not hear anything over 16kHz or even lower (I am 51 and my hearing starts to drop off somewhere around the 14.5kHz range). Losing high frequencies is a normal age-based degradation of your hearing. Apart from age, it is also highly dependent on how much your ears have had to endure in your life. (More about that in a minute…)
- Loss of overall volume – Another age-related issue is loss of volume (going slowly deaf, really). Although your hearing is not impaired for any specific specific frequency range, you begin to have trouble hearing quieter sounds. The threshold volume where you can hear things is slowly going up. Hearing aids are a common way of correcting this and it’s a normal condition that can happen as you get older. Again, what your ears have endured over the years can have a severe impact on the speed and severity of the deterioration
So if these conditions can be accelerated by abuse, how do your ears “fight” the damage? Well, they do have some protective mechanisms in place. Without going into too much detail, if you suddenly hear a loud sound, your ear registers this and puts on the damper for sounds coming in after that initial loud sound, attempting to regulate the level of sound being passed by your eardrum to your inner ear. Now this takes a little time, so sudden loud sounds (like gunshots) have full impact before the damping occurs. Hence stories of explosions deafening people.
So with “normal”, natural noises and sounds throughout a lifetime, there’s a good chance your ears will be able to protect themselves (unless you’re in close proximity to loud explosions or gunshots of course, which let’s face it aren’t very natural). But what about the – let’s face it – highly unnnatural environment of a DJ gig?
Ears and loud music: Let the damage begin
DJs, performing musicians, live sound engineer, clubbers and so on aren’t in natural environments, with normal sounds. As DJs, we spend a lot of time (both in practice, gigging and in going out ourselves) in environments where sounds / music are amplified to very high levels.
This is where the danger starts. If you spend too much time in a situation with very high sound levels, unfortunately, your ears get damaged. There are no “ifs”, “buts” or “maybes” about it. They get damaged. Period! Everyone who has ever been to a concert, rave or any other high sound-level event knows the feeling. Physically hurting and ringing ears. If it was pretty bad, it might not be gone the next day. Some of us have experienced the ringing to last for two or more days.
Now, ears don’t ring in their normal mode. So ears ringing are a clear sign something is wrong. Usually the ringing goes away after a while (especially if you give your ears some rest by not playing loud music or being in loud spaces for a bit). The damage was temporary. Or was it? All might seem to be well. The times you had ringing ears always passed and nowadays you think your hearing is still pretty good.
Tinnitus: The ringing that won’t go away
But then one morning when you are, say, 45 years old, you notice that ringing sensation in your ears is back – but you weren’t at any party or event, nor in a loud working environment. And, the ringing doesn’t go away. Congratulations – you have tinnitus. And it won’t go away – ever! If you are lucky it will be a sort of stable situation or only get worse really slowly. If you are unlucky, it could be like sirens constantly going off in your head. And the bad news about it is, that the seed for this condition could have been planted when you were having those wild nights when you were younger.
But what is tinnitus? Again without getting too medical, the hairs in your ears get damaged to the point that they don’t work any more; they’re not supplying the small electrical signals when they detect sounds in a certain frequency ranges. Since the brain parts are hard-wired for certain frequencies, they don’t have anything to do any more. And because braincells hate being bored and idle, they start telling the rest of your brain that they are actually hearing something. So you perceive hearing one or more tones, when in reality there is nothing.
Hearing loss: The “topping and tailing” effect
Apart from tinnitus there are some other ways hearing damage presents itself. Obviously, there is faster hearing deterioration, both frequency-wise (low lows and high highs going faster than appropriate for your physical age) and volume (you might get deaf a little bit earlier than is normal). But as the way we hear is an intricate balance between physical and electric, brain and air movement, you can also develop problems in registering specific areas of speech.
This may cause you to no longer be able to hear clearly the beginning and ending of sentences, making conversation that much harder. Or you might suffer from acute allergy to (loud) sounds. Suddenly you might feel very uncomfortable being in environments as previously benign as, say, a busy restaurant. And all this as a result of not protecting your hearing at a younger age.
So what’s the cure for hearing damage? As of yet, unfortunately none exists. Some of the symptoms can be influenced by medication, but only in limited ways. There are two developments going on that might provide some kind of solution in the future for some of the problems (mostly tinnitus). One is based on using implanted electrodes (like people with severe epilepsy sometimes have) to stimulate the right parts of the brain to refocus on other frequencies that you can still hear. The other is based on genetic treatment (successful on rats now) that makes it possible for the hairs in your ear to be regenerated. Both are a long way from being a feasible solution for the average Joe or Anita.
Protect now and save the pain later
So, what to do? It’s easy really. Get decent hearing protection. If you are in loud environments often and for prolonged periods of time, you owe it to yourself, in my humble opinion, to get some custom earplugs. The good ones are moulded to your own ear, so fit perfectly and are very comfortable (I can sleep with mine in, very handy when you are at a busy camping ground or in a hotel with a disco blaring outside the window till four in the morning…) They also have the damping of your choice, from as low as a few dB to a whopping 19+ dB, while still maintaining a close to straight frequency curve. This means you hear everything you would otherwise, just lower in volume – completely unlike the cheap, foam earplugs sold in chemists, for instance.
At the end I will link to a table that shows you what the recommended maximum times are for being in a certain loudness without risking hearing damage. In our particular hobby/job, 100+ dB is pretty standard, and as the table shows you, the safe maximum time in such an environment is measured in minutes rather than hours. Let’s say you have -15dB ear plugs, you now see how much longer you can be in that environment without the risk of damage.
Not using hearing protection at all appropriate times is something you do at your own risk. And I know, I know – the ringing goes away again, so no damage is done, right? and if you are young, you are invincible anyway! What does all this stuff have to do with you? But take my word for it. If you don’t protect your ears now, you will so wish you had by the time middle-age comes knocking.
My niece says she won’t wear hearing protection to outdoor rock festivals because she’d look silly wearing them as no one else does. First of all I don’t think that is true, but more importantly I wouldn’t care if everyone is either ignorant of the fact or consciously deciding to not protect their ears. No amount of peer pressure should cause you to ignore the facts and risk long-term and permanent damage. My son, who is a musician and director and is always doing musical stuff, luckily has listened to his dad and uses the custom fitted plugs I have given him for his birthday all the time. It gives me great peace of mind and I am sure his gratitude will grow with the years as his ears stay in the best possible shape.
Three last things to keep in mind…
1. Build up your “loudness credits”
There is a sort of “bank” effect. If during the week you don’t expose your ears to loud noises (which can be aided by wearing your earplugs while doing all kinds of mundane stuff, like riding a bike, walking or even sleeping) you build up “loudness credits”, then when the weekend comes you can take some of those credits out of the bank as your ears are a little more resilient to loud sounds.
2. Watch the alcohol…
I’ve spoken of the natural hearing protection that your ears have, the “damping”. Unfortunately this is a muscle-based reaction and this action can be restricted by alcohol use. So drinking when in a loud environments makes it worse for your ears.
3. Sleep in silence
When you listen to loud sounds during the day, your ears will try to recuperate and repair. Research has shown that your ears don’t do this when you are subject to loud noises/sound at night (while sleeping). So if you live in urban areas with lots of noise during the night, it pays to put your earplugs in for sleeping too.
It’s a long article, I realise that. But this is a lesson I have learned the hard way. And I wish someone was around 37 years ago when I started DJing telling me about this stuff. As a sufferer from tinnitus and of hearing that is old beyond its physical age, I can safely give you the following advice: Honour your ears, protect them from loud noises and high volumes, and wear protection!
• Here’s a link to a safe noise dose chart.