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Preserving the tuning of your most valuable instrument:
Why caring for your hearing is important

Music rehearsals and performances begin with a vital exercise: tuning the instruments.
Tuning is essential to ensure harmony and produce a blend
that’s a delight to the ear. While you and your students may perform tuning
often in a typical day, you may be unaware that you can also lose the tuning
of your most valuable instrument: your hearing.

Most of us don’t fully appreciate the wonders of our hearing.
Normal hearing encompasses an intensity range so great it requires a
logarithmic scale to quantify it (the decibel), a frequency range beyond
the typical music or speech spectrum (20 – 20,000 Hz), and exquisite
temporal analysis and frequency resolution abilities that allow us to
perform complex auditory tasks (such as
locating sound sources in the spatial plane, understanding speech in
background noise, and direct an ensemble by hearing and analyzing
the instruments individually and as a blend). Hearing loss affects each
of these aspects of hearing, and although there are many causes of hearing
loss, the most common is excessive sound exposure (which for simplicity,
we call “noise-induced hearing loss” or NIHL).

The most basic measure of hearing is the pure tone threshold; for this test
the softest sounds you can hear are plotted for a narrow range of frequencies
(those that contribute most to speech understanding: 250 - 8,000 Hz). The audiogram is a plot of
pure tone thresholds across frequency, and shows an individual’s hearing sensitivity for quiet sounds.



Figure 1: Hypothetical Audiogram. Frequency is on the X axis and
intensity on the Y axis. Red symbols are right ear; blue symbols are left ear.
The shaded region is the normal range. In this example, hearing in both
ears is similar (symmetrical), and is normal in the low to mid frequencies
(250 – 2000 Hz), dropping to a mild-to-moderate hearing loss in the
higher frequencies (3000 – 8000 Hz).

Most hearing loss can’t be corrected medically or surgically (an audiologist
can determine the need for medical intervention and will refer to an
otolaryngologist as necessary). If the hearing loss warrants it, hearing
aids will be recommended to compensate for the loss of audibility for
quiet sounds. However, hearing loss is so much more. NIHL damages hearing
not only the loudness domain, but it also dulls our exquisite frequency resolution
and reduces our temporal analysis abilities. This is why making sounds louder doesn’t
necessarily make them clearer, and why hearing aids can’t restore
normal auditory abilities to those with hearing loss. Understanding how to
preserve the exquisite tuning of our ears and protect them from damage is fundamental
to anyone who wants to enjoy music to the fullest degree possible
throughout their lifetime.

In over a decade of attending the Midwest Band Clinic, Etymotic Research
president Mead Killion, Ph.D., has rarely encountered a band director
who didn’t have some degree of hearing loss. Hearing loss was often thought to be an inevitable
consequence of the job: high sound levels experienced in directing a
roomful of music students for hours each day, over many years.
However, NIHL is preventable, and the good news is that many music
instructors "and their students are embracing the knowledge and
tools that enable them to maintain their ears’ fine tuning so they
can fully appreciate and enjoy music, not only now, but for decades
to come.

Awareness of the risk of NIHL isn’t enough; most of us want answers to
specific questions, such as:

  • What happens to our ears when we have a noise overdose?
  • Is noise-induced hearing loss temporary or permanent?
  • What’s that ringing sound I hear at the end of a long, loud day?
  • Do ears recover after a noise exposure?


For answers to these questions and more, see Part 2, “If only we’d known: consequences of
over-exposure to high sound levels.”


Patricia A. Johnson, Au.D.
Etymotic Research, Inc.
61 Martin Lane
Elk Grove Village, IL 60007


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