Hearing loss high among musicians

JODY O'CALLAGHAN
Last updated 05:00 09/12/2012

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More than 60 per cent of adult orchestral musicians are breaking their best instrument - their hearing.

In the most comprehensive audiological study of orchestral musicians, 60.7 per cent of those aged 27-66 had hearing loss, as well as 22 per cent of those aged 18-38, and 16 per cent in child musicians aged 8-12.

Capital & Coast District Health Board head audiologist Dr Sargunam Sivaraj conducted hearing tests, measured their music exposure and studied the progression of hearing loss over periods as long as 20 years as part of his Massey University PhD research.

"It is the best instrument that musicians have, and to say it is broken is hard," he said.

"But we found the increased years of music exposure causes progressive hearing loss in significant numbers of individual musicians, and this trend is observed in all age groups of musicians but not in all musicians."

Hearing loss was not specific to loud musical instruments or musicians with many years of music exposure, he said.

Some people had "stronger/harder ears" while others had "weaker/tender" ears with marked hearing loss after short-term music exposure.

Wellington percussionist Grant Myhill, who plays for Orchestra Wellington and the RNZAF Band, started getting tinnitus at 25.

His ears regularly buzzed the morning after playing, so he took the then rare step of protecting his hearing with musicians' earplugs.

He now has plugs of three different strengths, alternating them depending on the volumes reached.

"In a pit, say at the ballet, there is quite a lot more risk because it's more contained. There is a lot of volume going on."

He joined a brass band at 7, and was professionally playing by the age of 12. At 50, he plays about 25 hours a week through rehearsals, gigs and practising at home.

While his loudest instrument was a crash cymbal, he was often positioned in the orchestra with a french horn bell in his face.

"My tests are showing I'm not really any worse than someone my age, but they are surprised I have not lost more [hearing]."

The plugs were important for him, and well worth the $300 a pair.

"I sometimes take them out during a performance because you do notice some disconnect. But we do need to look after ourselves."

The study also found female musicians had better hearing thresholds and slower progression of hearing loss than males.

It could only be prevented, not healed, so Sivaraj wanted to educate musicians about the importance of using musician ear plugs as early as possible, especially within schools.

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Shortening rehearsals, taking a break in the midst of a session, and avoiding rehearsals and performances on the same day could help. And other noise exposure like stereos, loud concerts, nightclubs, and noisy hobbies like gun shooting, race cars, and mechanical tools should be minimised.

More than 10 per cent of New Zealanders had some degree of hearing loss, Sivaraj said.

- Sunday Star Times

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