Musicians have always worked towards an ideal dynamic in their playing, whether it be four bars of calm in a piece of music that teases the listener's ears, then lifts the tune, or a sound so big and offensive that listening is not an option.
I'm now sitting in a quiet room, got me a cup of tea, thinking cap's on, stereo's off, and the only exterior sound is a low humming noise coming from the computer. I say 'exterior sound' because if I put my mind to it I can hear other sounds (and I'm not talking about inner voices or anything funny like that).
Tinnitus is the name given to the condition of hearing noises in the ear although there is no external sound. The noises may be heard in one ear, both ears, or in the middle of the head. The noises may be low, medium or high pitched.
Tinnitus is very common amongst musicians and basically anyone either working or living around loud music or noise in general. Different sounds and pitches can be heard and the ringing or humming in the ears is constant with no let up.
I'm a percussionist, and I've been playing congas and various percussion for about eight years. Suffice to say I've had a lot of ear-splitting music enter my ears with little regard for the delicate and incredible miracle that is the human ear.
Over the last four months, the ringing I've sometimes had after a gig or workshop seems to have found a permanent home in my head, where it rings and hums all day and night, like an unwanted guest whistling whenever silence is near.
This had led me to try and increase awareness of tinnitus, and maybe even stop someone from getting this constant ringing in their ears, although everyone has experienced it at some stage of their lives, normally after a loud gig or show.
A few months ago I went to my local GP, where I thought I might get something prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of tinnitus, only to be met by a very educated man, scratching the back of his head, who could only give me the number of an ear specialist – who in turn scratched the back of his head and said, 'Well sir, you'll have to just live with it.'
Well, news like this is no good for anyone, particularly someone trying to make a full time career from music. And although more and more is becoming known of the problem, there doesn't seem to be any definite cure.
Noise-induced tinnitus is caused by damage done to your inner ear upon receiving sounds exceeding 110 decibels. The tiny hairs on your cochlea, used for sending signals to your brain, can be damaged or sometimes completely broken, thus sending mixed signals to your brain and giving a ringing in the ears. After a short period of time, the damaged hairs can restore themselves and the ringing will be gone, but your ears can only take so much of this, and after a certain amount of time, and abuse, they will be unable to restore themselves – resulting in tinnitus.
There are several likely sources, all of which are known to trigger or worsen tinnitus: noise-induced hearing loss, ear-wax build up, and head and neck trauma. Of these factors, exposure to loud music is by far the most probable cause of tinnitus.
The sound in an average niteclub reaches 95-120 decibles; loud gigs and rehearsal rooms can all exceed 110 decibels and – though this may seem hard to believe – any more than just ten seconds spent in these environments will do damage to your ears. To give you a hint of what's involved, a pnuematic drill is 110 decibles. In the 1980s, the design of the walkman was changed to limit volume control due to tinnitus.
The tinnitus I have is quite mild. I can only really hear it in quiet environments, at night, reading, that kind of stuff, but still, quite irritating, as silence doesn't really exist anymore for me. It just means that whenever I go to practice, play, see a gig, I'm best advised to wear ear plugs so as the ringing doesn't get any louder, which means being constantly armed with fresh plugs in case an unexpected drummer springs out of nowhere armed with two sticks banging the loudest instrument he can find!
I will stress, however, that it's not only drummers who suffer, or can suffer, it's anyone subjecting their ears to loud sounds that the ears just cannot deal with. Currently, over 50 million American adults suffer from tinnitus. For twelve million the problem is so severe that some have become incapacitated. There doesn't seem to be a definite cure for noise-induced tinnitus as far as the medical world is concerned, and even the field of homeopathy doesn't seem to have any solid, clear-cut, cure.
Our only defense, it seems, is abstaining from loud gigs or, of course, wearing ear plugs, which most musicians including myself seem to dislike, or at least feel uncomfortable wearing. But I reckon, as we all practice safe sex, we should practice safe gigs. In the last five years I've only worn earplugs now and again and this undoubtedly is the cause of my noise-induced tinntus. Another option is to take a decibel counter with you when you go to gigs and the like. Although this may seem a bit much, at least it lets you know how much damage you're doing to your ears then and there, as opposed to waiting until you get to a quieter place where the ringing can be heard.
The more I talk to people about tinnitus, the more I find that most people really don't know all that much about the problem, or even that it exists at all. This, I feel, is a little scary, purely because tinnitus is permanent, with no definite cure, and can also get worse as time goes by if adequate protection is not taken from the point when tinnitus is first identified.
What I know about tinnitus is only what I've learnt over the last four months, and most of the facts have been taken from the internet, where there seems to be a huge community of tinnitus sufferers and a huge source of information on the problem. I'd love to hear what any JMI readers think on this subject.
I will also say that some people are more susceptible to tinnitus, as some are to any other physical traumas. I don't want to frighten anyone, just maybe raise some awareness on what can be done to your ears, probably the most important tool of your career.
Published on 1 September 2001
Dave Mc Farlane is the director of Teamsamba. Visit www.teamsamba.com