Musicians provide the rest of us with a wonderful gift—but at what cost to themselves? The question of whether years of exposure to the blasts of trumpets or the wails of electric guitars can damage one’s hearing has been studied extensively in recent years, with inconclusive results.
A new large-scale study from Europe suggests the issue is indeed real—and more widespread than previously believed.
An analysis of medical-insurance records of Germans found that, compared to non-musicians, professional musicians were nearly four times more likely to experience some degree of noise-related hearing loss.
"Our data suggest that in professional musicians, the risks of music-induced hearing loss outweigh by far the potential benefits for hearing ability."
A research team led by Dr. Wolfgang Ahrens of the University of Bremen examined health-insurance records of approximately three million Germans for the years 2004 through 2008. Of that population, 2,227 (or 0.07 percent of the total) were identified as professional musicians.
The researchers found that, compared to the general population, professional musicians “had a 3.51-fold higher incidence rate of noise-induced hearing loss.”
Not surprisingly, both musicians and non-musicians were more likely to experience hearing problems as they grew older. But after adjusting for age and other factors that could influence hearing, the rate remained far higher for musicians.
The results stand in gloomy contrast to a 2011 study that found musicians retain the ability to distinguish speech in noisy conditions far longer than non-musicians. “Our data suggest that in professional musicians, the risks of music-induced hearing loss outweigh by far the potential benefits for hearing ability,” Ahrens and his colleagues write.
This appears to be the largest study ever conducted comparing the risk of hearing loss among musicians with that of the general public. But it does have one clear limitation: The data does not tell us which musicians played acoustic instruments as opposed to electric ones.
Then again, loud noise is loud noise; repeated exposure to such sounds is a proven risk, whether you’re a timpanist or a tree trimmer. With that in mind, the researchers make a series of recommendations.
“Musicians should be offered protection by in-ear devices and installation of sound-protecting shields between the sections of an orchestra,” they write. “Some of these measures, such as in-ear sound protection, should also apply to professional musicians playing in rock bands, or when electric sound amplifiers are used.”
The authors conclude by calling this a public-health issue. Perhaps someday, playing music without ear protection will seem as foolish as driving a car without a seat belt.