Can You Hear Me?

I was fortunate to have a dad who took an interest in my welfare as I was growing up. Over the years, he did a lot of things for my well-being. I can remember when I first went to study drums with Joe Morello. Because my dad read somewhere that loud drumming and music was bad for your hearing, he purposely tested Joe's hearing by speaking softly. Although Joe passed the test with flying colors, my dad was right on track. Had Joe been a Heavy Metal drummer, he may well have failed the test.

I know this week's article is not the most exciting one I've ever written, but it's probably the most important one you'll ever read. Hearing is a musician's most important tool and I don't know how you feel, but a future society of deaf drummers doesn't do a thing for me! So stick around and let's learn what you can do to protect your "hearing chops."

Everyone is in Danger
Hearing loss is a real problem that can affect anyone: Whether you listen to music through headphones or have a gig as a DJ, landscaper, construction worker, motorcyclist, or musician - especially a drummer. And especially a drummer who constantly has to play LOUD enough to be heard above any number of amplified, distorted guitars. I know all about it. Over the past three-plus decades, I've played in all kinds of groups from Heavy Metal to Rock to Funk to Jazz - and everything in between. Some of these bands were horn bands while others were guitar bands, pumping sound through powerful Fender and Marshall amplifiers. While it's true that distorted "electronic" sound is a bit worse for your hearing than clean (natural horn) sound, it really doesn't matter what type of band you're in. Any sound that's too loud for too long can damage your hearing. The formula for hearing damage is: Overall volume level plus length of exposure.

Know Your Decibels
Sound level is commonly measured in "decibels." A decibel, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is "A unit used to express relative difference in power, usually between acoustic or electric signals, equal to ten times the common logarithm of the ratio of the two levels." Yeah, right! Let's just say that decibel level is a common way to measure sound volume and leave it at that.

Following is a chart (data courtesy of the Deafness Research Foundation) that relates various decibel levels to real life sounds:

Normal sound levels that are NOT damaging to your hearing:

Decibel Level.....Real Life Example
30........................Person whispering
40........................Refrigerator hum or noise                             level in bedroom away from                             traffic
50........................Normal conversation
60........................Air conditioner 20 ft. away
70........................Hair dryer/Noisy restaurant
80........................Average city traffic

Constant Exposure to the following sound levels CAN impair hearing:

Decibel Level......Real Life Example
90.........................Lawn mower/motorcycle
100.......................Chain saw/pneumatic drill
120.......................Sitting near speakers during                              Rock band concert
140.......................Jet plane/gun shot
160.......................Rocket launch pad

Too Loud for Too Long = Danger!
Although your ears can rebound from abuse that is rare and short-lived – like playing a set of Jimi Hendricks tunes once a blue moon, the danger occurs when you expose yourself to sound above 80 decibels on a regular basis.

Every time you feel pain, hear ringing in your ears, or have trouble hearing following exposure to loud music or other sounds, your hearing is being damaged to a certain degree. At the beginning, this hearing loss is only temporary and returns to normal soon after you remove yourself from the source of the noise. But hearing damage is cumulative, and it sneaks up on you. It gradually gets worse over months and years of continuous exposure, until one day you'll find you're having trouble hearing the band leader counting off; or maybe you'll freak trying to find the source of a constant ringing noise that turns out to be in your own head. That ringing condition is known as tinnitus.

Picture what it's like to live with tinnitus. Unless you have a severe case you'll probably rarely notice the ringing noise, until everything around you gets quiet (like when you're trying to go to sleep). It's during the silence that the constant ringing in your ears can drive you crazy. I know because it nearly drives me nuts, and I only have tinnitus in one ear. I've tried to protect my hearing over the years and I don't believe my tinnitus is from drumming.

Experts agree that loud music and noise is not the only cause of tinnitus. It can be caused by lots of things from ear infections to allergies to antibiotics. (I had bad acne as a teenager and I believe my daily regimen of antibiotics is what caused my condition.) Some people, Barbra Streisand for example, are born with tinnitus. However, the most common cause seems to be cumulative overexposure to those damaging decibel levels. So if you abuse your ears now, you can look forward to one of two things later in life: Going deaf or going daft from constant ringing in your ears.

But there are ways you can play your Acid Rock all night long and still hear a pin drop, well into your 90's. How? It's easy.

Hearing Protection
In the old days, drummers just stuffed cotton balls in their ears and while you can still do that, I've found that earplugs work much better and look better too. There are many different kinds of earplugs available for musicians today and they come in many different materials, shapes, sizes, and even various designer colors. But is any one earplug the absolute best? If you listen to each manufacturer, of course, they'll each say they make the best. The truth is that even professional musicians (the ones who aren't paid to hawk a particular product) are split as to who makes the best earplugs. When it comes down to it, it doesn't really matter.

What does matter is that you find a pair of earplugs that you can afford, that you can live with, and that you'll actually wear - every time you play. To that end, I offer you my Hearing Protection Resource (see the sidebar) and this final word of advice: Get some hearing protection now and USE IT. Remember, you're better off doing it before you discover a problem that you may have to live (and drum) with for the rest of your life.

Until next time: Stay loose - and keep your hearing healthy.

Tiger Bill Meligari



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