Musicians revile them and everyone else thinks they’re for worrywarts, but in a world of escalating urban noise, those cheap foamy substances are nothing to laugh at.
Practically deaf, my grandfather never lets you forget it. “I can’t hear a freaking thing,” he goes around yelling, “so don’t bother talking." If these constant reminders have taught me anything, it’s that partial deafness poses unique challenges. There is, after all, no wheelchair, Seeing Eye dog or cane to alert others of your problem. As a result people are liable to think you’re stupid, and get irritated really quickly. “When I was young,” says comedian Kathy Buckley, “I was put in a school for retarded kids for two years before they realized I actually had hearing loss.”
Watching my grandfather go through this has been tough, even if I know it isn’t such a loss for someone who regards socializing like time spent in the stocks. In fact, I often hear a hint of relief when he says, “You’re flapping your lips for nothing big talker, I can’t hear you.”
If there’s something that does bother him though, it’s living without the Beatles, Motown, Elvis and Ennio Morricone. When younger, he collected classic rock, folk, disco and Italo-pop—all of it now stacked in milk crates in his spare room. I’ve caught him running his hands over the grooves in vinyl and starring at album covers, as if willing his hearing to magically return. He suffers in silence, even if he sometimes demands, in a show of masculinity and old-school toughness, that someone “get rid of this junk.” No one ever does.
In his case, hearing loss was a combination of noise exposure and Ménière's disease, a disorder of the inner ear that also affects balance. This has made him feel helpless at times, but also given him a kernel of regret. Why hadn’t he ever thought about protecting his hearing in the past? Would he have been able to save some of the hearing unaffected by Ménière's?
The disease first took hold around the same time I became preoccupied with saving my own hearing. Back then, my social life revolved around concerts, new albums and jams with my loud, six-piece rock band. As my grandfather was dealing with bouts of vertigo and sudden deafness, I was usually coming home with ringing ears and the sensation that I was drunk without having had a drink.
All this changed with one wail of feedback. It was at my third concert in three nights, when a plugged-in and very loud guitar was left leaning against an amp. The resulting feedback attacked my ears with the efficiency and cold-heartedness of a doctor performing a colonoscopy. Sharp and penetrating, the pain was instant, and I half expected to find my ears bloodied. Instead, they rang for days. “WHAT?” I yelled at anyone that spoke to me, like a construction worker near a jackhammer.
Scared to the core, I bought my first package of disposable earplugs. I had no idea how important they would become to me. Within weeks, I rarely left home without the cheap foamy substances. I wore them at rehearsals, concerts, movies and parties. I wore them on downtown streets, in subways and traffic jams.
I became so obsessed with protecting my hearing that when I didn’t have them, I would get mildly Woody Allen-esque in my neuroticism. If anyone asked, I’d blame an inner ear problem, ashamed, even though in theory, there was no reason to be. People, after all, have always used earplugs, with records of clay, cotton and wax varieties going back as far as the ancient world.
The last one, in fact, was immortalized in the Odyssey. Faced with the seductive, yet dangerous songs of the sirens, Ulysses urged his crew to stuff their ears with wax plugs, leaving his unprotected, and opting to tie himself to his ship’s mast. Of course, when he begged his crew to take him down, they couldn’t hear him. How’s that for successful product placement?
Earplugs in the modern era are still often made out of wax and cotton, but there have been advances. Ray and Cecelia Benner created the first moldable models out of silicon rubber in 1962. Designed to ease Swimmer’s Ear, it wasn’t until ten years later, when Ross Gardner Jr., a scientist at National Research, developed foam earplugs purely as a defense against noise. There was a very good reason to do so. Of the roughly 40 million Americans suffering from hearing impairment, 10 million can be attributed to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). This is either through a one-off contact with loud sound, or repeated exposure to sounds above 85 decibels, like the sound of heavy traffic.
The areas of the ear affected are the microscopic hair cells found inside the cochlea, which respond to sound vibrations and send out signals to the auditory nerve. If enough of them get damaged, you’re losing your hearing, or at least part of it.
Of course, simply living in a city doesn’t mean you’ll go deaf, but it does illustrate how sensitive our ears are, and how at risk some people can be. So why then in a recent study of 10 thousand young people, did only 8 percent rank hearing loss as a big concern? It may be partially down to the proliferation, and failings, of foam earplugs themselves.
Gardner stumbled onto the polymer foam material while working on joint sealants, and got the idea for a semi-shock absorber for sound from the padding used in headphones. The goal was simply to absorb sound, and not to distinguish between what gets absorbed. The result is an earplug that blocks noise, but leaves a lot to be desired, particularly for musicians.
“The foam plugs don’t work,” said Dr. Marshall Chasin, an audiologist and the director of Auditory Research at the Musicians’ Clinics of Canada. “They significantly lessen the hearing of the right side of the piano keyboard, so you’ll hear notes differently, which is disastrous for musicians. It sounds dull, flat, and it just doesn’t sound live.”
Arlen Thompson, drummer in the band Wolf Parade, thinks this is the reason some are put off. “I know a lot of singers who have a hard time hearing themselves with earplugs,” he says. “You can lose a sense of dynamics and transients with cheap earplugs, so people avoid them for that reason,”
The earplugs that address these issues most effectively are the custom-fitted variety, which are made by pouring silicon into the ear, and then outfitting the resulting mold with a specific sound filter and attenuator. The only problem is that prices for these generally start around the $200 range, a sum most independent musicians can’t afford.
In my band, earplugs and hearing loss are somewhat touchy subjects. Among the six of us, the ratio of earplug users to non-users is split right down the middle; with the three holdouts often treating the suggestion like an insult to the way they lead their lives. “I don’t need those,” they say, pointing to my basic plugs like they’re deposits of plutonium.
Among the naysayers is Rebecca, our 22-year old cellist who already reminds me of my grandfather: namely, lip reading, wild guesses and irritable cries of “huh?” While she would never admit it, we’re all convinced her hearing is damaged.
“I think we should change the tempo,” someone might say over the moan and bang of instruments and cables.
“Who’s moving to Orlando?” She’ll respond.
Despite growing up in a musical family, and being classically trained in a youth orchestra, she has never protected her ears. “I'm sure that damage has already been done,” She’s told me. “But I don't worry about losing my hearing to the extent of it changing my life in any way.”
Dr. Chasin acknowledges the existence of people like Rebecca, but thinks things are changing. “Between 1990 and 2009 there was quite a big difference. In 1990, only a third of my patients ended up getting earplugs after I suggested them. Nowadays, about 80 percent get them,” He said, explaining that campaigns by Pete Townshend and organizations like H.E.A.R, have helped educate musicians. “In 1990, it wasn’t cool to protect your ears, in 2009, it is,” he said.
Musicians who still don’t wear plugs will often simply say, “I’m used to it.” Truth is, they’ve lost the physical ability to comprehend sound at certain frequencies. The ringing they experience is the ear’s way of putting up a red flag.
“Ringing in the ears is an early warning of too much noise. It sort of shuts down, warning you that you’ve overexposed yourself,” Dr. Chasin explained. “That’s not a bad thing, if you give your ears 15 to 18 hours rest. Enough of that happening however, you will suffer permanent music or noise induced hearing loss,” he said.
Don’t musicians who resist earplugs notice this? “Hearing loss happens very slowly, and people don't see the immediate effects of not wearing protection,” said Howard Bilerman, a drummer and recording engineer at Montreal’s Hotel 2 Tango recording studio. “It is a classic case of doing something irresponsible in the moment, which one could potentially regret 10 years down the line," he added.
The very nature of pop music, Dr. Chasin explains, may perpetuate this, even if hearing protection is more popular now.“I think it’s a misdirected macho attitude, that I‘m an 18 year old, I’m immortal, I can stay up all night.” he said.
Ironically, the sense of invincibility inherent in pop/rock music may also help protect hearing, at least partially. Numerous studies show that music you like may actually be less damaging to your ears than music you dislike. The obvious problem with this is if you really like a piece of music, you’re likely to also raise the volume when you hear it.
Milan Kundera once said, “People are going deaf because music is played louder and louder, but because they're going deaf, it has to be played louder still,” and that was before the iPod came about.
The ubiquitous Apple creation, and its ear-splitting headphones, can vary between 100 to 115 decibels at their maximum levels. A 2006 study indicated that listening to music at this volume for more than five minutes a day, using the stock “bud” earphones, significantly increased the risk of hearing loss in a typical person, in a sense, making ear abuse portable.
Part of what makes those “bud” earphones so attractive to many people (apart from the slick marketing) is that they can boost signals by as much as 6-9 decibels, making music sound more exciting. This means they also help replicate the sound levels measured at most concerts, roughly 120 decibels, or enough to mess you up for a long time.
I’m aware of all this whenever I use a pair of earplugs. Our hearing, I often feel, is threatened, and I want to protect it. Trouble is, it might just be out of our hands.
“I've found that most of the damage comes from hanging out in bars and clubs, with loud music pumping out of shit speakers, and a hundred drunk folks trying to talk over each other,” Thompson said.
Having learned to take care of his hearing from his father, an audio engineer, Thompson shares many of my concerns. Difference is, he’s never taken it as far as me. Could it be then that I’m just a bit crazy?
“We’re all going to lose our hearing anyway, once we get passed the age of 55,” Dr. Chasin said. “And combined with the acquired forms of hearing loss, like working in a factory, in a rock band, or even loud iPods, there will be a further loss.”
This sense of inevitability put a dent in my zeal, but I wasn’t quite ready to renounce my obsessive ways. Recently I picked up my grandfather while wearing a bright pair of silicon earplugs. It was the first time I had worn earplugs in his presence. My hope was that he would tell me how smart I was, how he’d wished he’d been as responsible and proactive.
Instead, he took one look at me and said, “What the hell are those?”
“Earplugs. I’m protecting my hearing.”
“Huh?” He asked.
“Miami? What about it?”
“I don’t know what you’re saying, but take those off. You goddamn kids are crazy.”