Hearing damage caused by music (live or recorded), especially in young people, is a topic of very active current medical and social concern. Some studies suggest that as many as 20% of young people show audiometric signs of noise induced hearing damage and this is often attributed to listening to loud music.
Music-induced hearing damage (MIHD) is a chronic and incurable condition with manifold personal, social and economic consequences that sits at the intersection of medicine, technology and music. I want to add to our understandings of this area by examining the issue of MIHD specifically in the music and sound industries. Since musicians and sound crew both produce the music that can potentially damage hearing and also often serve as role models for young music fans, their own attitudes and behaviour are an important part of understanding the current situation.
Musicians and sound engineers and technicians also present an interesting case in the field of occupational health since the very sense that is the foundation of their creative and professional lives is at risk of damage through their work and thus hearing protection might be considered essential. However, no hearing protection is perfect and this group are often concerned that use of protective devices such as earplugs or acoustic screens, for example, might compromise the fine aural discrimination required to do their jobs effectively. They face then a difficult decision: to protect or not to protect?
I will use my expertise in the histories of medicine and medical technologies, and my knowledge of the sound industry, to develop a project that will both speak to current concerns and address a gap in historical studies by exploring the history of hearing loss and hearing protection in the music/sound industries, showing how our understandings of the potential risks to hearing have developed and how, when and why various social and technological responses and solutions have emerged, from the early 20th century to date. It’s important to remember that MIHD is not confined neither to amplified music nor to recent decades. Orchestral musicians are some of those most often affected and the problem began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the rise of large orchestras and musical repertoire requiring many musicians, such as Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”. Musicians in brass ensembles, such brass or military bands are also particularly at risk.
I’m interested not just in “personal” protection, such as ear plugs or in-ear monitors, for example, but also in how developments in the technology of live performance, such as PA system design, and venue design and management, have changed the sound environment for sound crews and artists both on and off stage, for better or worse.
In preparation for this project, I have carried out an online pilot survey to gather information on the attitudes and experiences of people currently working (or who have previously worked) in the sound and music industries. The pilot results (from a sample of 230+) indicate that this dilemma is an integral part of the working lives of this group. Although 98% of respondents state that they believe their hearing is at risk, and 68% report changes in their hearing, only 11% use hearing protection all the time, while 71% make case-by-case decisions about when and where they can protect their hearing without compromising their work. For more information click on the ‘Survey Results’ tab.
Sources for the study will include:
- archives of institutions, orchestras, music venues and educational institutions
- trade press and promotional materials
- medical, audio and electrical journals
- newspapers and periodicals
- online publications and forums
- Manufacturers and designers of sound systems and hearing protection
- company archives/records, interviews with key figures
- an extended version of the pilot survey of musicians and production crew
- interviews with individual musicians, sound engineers, sound designers, music teachers/lecturers, theatre managers etc.