How does loud music affect my ears?
The cochlea is the organ of hearing. Shaped like a snail shell, it sits deep inside the ear and is lined with tiny sound-sensing cells called hair cells. These hair cells are essential for hearing: they pick up sound waves and turn them into electrical signals that are sent to the brain. These electrical signals are then interpreted as sound.
Ears aren’t designed to withstand noise for long periods of time. Experts agree that hair cells can start to become damaged by sounds of 85dB and above. And that’s a problem when you consider the music at clubs and concerts is often around 110dB, and some headphones play music that’s just as loud when the volume is turned right up.
When you’re exposed to too much loud music, the hair cells in your ears become overstimulated – and once this happens, they become fatigued and stop responding to sound. This may result in temporary threshold shift, which is temporary hearing loss following exposure to loud sound. You may recognise it as dulled hearing, which can last from a few minutes to a few days. At first, after a period of quiet, the hair cells recover. However, repeated exposure to loud music over time kills these hair cells, and they lose their ability to recover. The hearing loss becomes noticeable – and it’s permanent.
Research has shown that when hair cells are damaged, neurons (nerve cells in the brain) start searching for electrical signals that aren’t being received from the ear and may become hyperactive. It’s been suggested that this hyperactivity makes the brain more aware of the electrical ‘noise’ from the neurons, which is heard as tinnitus (usually described as ‘ringing ears’). Again, this can be temporary, but with continued exposure to loud music, it’s likely that the tinnitus will become permanent.
So how can I listen to music safely?
Your risk of hearing damage from loud music depends on how loud it is and how long you’re exposed to it for. Simply put, the higher the volume of music, the shorter the time you should listen to it. If the music feels uncomfortable, it’s definitely too loud.
There aren’t any laws to protect you from loud music at music venues or when using a personal music player. Currently, the laws around noise exposure only exist to protect the hearing of employees who work in noisy environments. That means it’s up to you to protect your ears.
Some people are more susceptible to noise-induced hearing damage than others. But it’s only possible to know your susceptibility once the damage is done.
Tips for protecting your ears when using a personal music player
- Take regular breaks of at least five minutes every hour to give your ears a rest.
- Use a volume limiter on your device (if there is one) – this means you won’t be able to turn the music up without realising it.
- Don’t go over the ‘safe’ volume level that appears on your phone’s screen when you change the volume.
- Turn the volume down a notch – it’ll make a big difference to how long you can listen safely for.
- Invest in some noise-cancelling headphones – not only will these block out the noise around you, they also mean you won’t have to turn up the volume to a dangerous
- level to hear your music properly over background noise.
Tips for protecting your ears at gigs and clubs
- Carry earplugs with you – and use them – on a night out. The reusable kind designed for clubbers and musicians don’t muffle sound, just make it a bit quieter and a lot safer. There are different types available, ranging from the inexpensive to the custom-made.
- In a music venue, stay away from the speakers – the closer you are, the greater the risk of hearing damage.
- Take regular breaks from the loudest areas to give your ears a rest – chillout zones in clubs are perfect for this.
If you’re worried that you may have damaged your hearing as a result of listening to loud music and would like more information, get in touch with our Information Line.