A discussion with the author of Volume Control on music, musicians and hearing loss
When My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless tour hit New York in June 1992, I wanted to see it for myself, not knowing that hearing it would be another matter.
With no plugs to protect my hearing, my ears rang for days after that and I worried so much that I went to a doctor who assured me that it would stop soon and advised that I use some kind of ear plugs in the future. From then on, I always kept earplugs handy – as a music fan, I didn’t want there ever to be a time when I couldn’t hear the music I loved. I’d even chide my friends who didn’t have earplugs at shows, warning them of the consequences.
So when I heard (so to speak) about New Yorker writer David Owen’s book Volume Control about his bout with hearing loss and ways to treat it, I knew that this was something to dive into. There, he tells not just his own struggles but also the hearing problems of many of his friends, family and clinic patients and all the recent scientific and technological strides that have been made to help people with this problem. For this interview, I was particularly interested to get some of his thoughts about how music fans and musicians could save their hearing or what’s left of it.
You mentioned that in the military, there’s a stigma about wearing hearing aids. I wonder if that’s true of musicians too?
Oh, sure it is. It’s very un-rocker especially to have hearing aids. You think about how hard those guys try not to look their age. Although I think there’s more acceptance now with everybody about this but there are certainly many musicians from my era, the rock era, who REALLY blasted out their ears and they have no alternative but to have hearing aids. So I’m sure that stigma is there and it would not be any less for them than for anyone else and it’s probably more, just because… (laughs) When you’re still dressing and acting like a 20 year old, it’s got to be in your mind that having hearing aids is like having a walker.
For music fans, what do you recommend for concerts? I use Earlove brand, which has the ‘Christmas tree’ style you mention with the Etymotic brand that you discussed. Is that good enough?
Yeah, there’s a whole price range of ‘musicians’ earplugs’ and the advantage to them is that they reduce the sound level across the whole frequency spectrum pretty evenly. So then music sounds like music- you’re not just cutting out the higher or lower frequencies or the middle. It’s taking everything down.
You think of the musicians who risked sound exposure like the heavy metal guys but it’s really everybody. For classical musicians in a big symphony orchestra, it can be terrible on the ears. And it’s not just the instrument that you yourself are playing- very often, the greater damage comes from whoever is sitting right behind you. So if you’ve got a French horn right behind you, it can have a real impact on your ears. But it can be affected by your instrument too. Violinists tend to lose hearing first on the left side, just the way right-handed infantrymen do (from gun blasts).
For fans in an audience versus musicians on a stage, is one type of hearing aid better for each group when you take in account the acoustics, speakers, arrangement of a venue and so on?
You know, sometimes it’s louder on stage than it is in the audience. In the old days, musicians were listening to their own instruments through a wedge monitor on the floor in front of them and they had to have that loud enough so that they could hear it over everybody else in the band (many small clubs still use these). And if their hearing declined, they had to keep chasing it up. Nowadays, musicians tend to have custom-made in-ear monitors that look almost like fancy hearing aids. But those could be a danger too because if you keep turning them up to get above the sound of everything else, it’s just a very loud environment. And musicians are exposed to it occupationally for many hours at time- more hours than people in the audience are.
I think there are many activities that we take for granted with hearing dangers. When I was a kid, there was nobody ever who said anything about protecting your hearing. My parents would say ‘don’t throw rocks at each other,’ ‘don’t snap towels at each other- you could put out an eye.’ But no one said ‘don’t do this because you might deafen yourself.’ I never thought about it then. Grownups never thought about it.
Now, people are more aware and so, you’ll see when you have the spouse of famous musicians take their young children to concerts, they’ll very often have their big earmuff-type sound-suppressors on to protect the kids from too much exposure. But it’s not like when you’re really young, your ears are weak and then when you’re old, they get strong. If those kids are wearing it, then everybody should. It’s probably too much to think that musicians will play and music will suddenly become quiet. So you kind of have to take the initiative and protect yourself.
A misconception that people have also is that music itself somehow can be protective. So you’re seeing someone who’s mowing a lawn or using a leaf blower and they’ll have headphones on or what looks like ear protection but what they’re actually doing is playing music louder than the thing that they’re trying to drown out. So, they’re compounding the problem rather than solving it.
The amazing thing is not that anybody loses their hearing – it’s that anybody keeps it. When I think of all the things I did, my hearing is still pretty good. I’m 65 and I’ve lost some hearing in the higher frequencies. But when I think back of how reckless I’ve been, I’ve been very lucky. Different people have different vulnerabilities. There are sound levels that I’ve been exposed to where for somebody else, it would have been disastrous. Even though you’ll see people talk about standards (for sound levels), you can’t necessarily follow them because I think you have to stay on top of your own ears and make your own judgments.
For someone who has hearing aids, if they’re sitting through a single piece of music that varies from quiet to loud passages (say ‘the 1812 Overture’), would you recommend that they need to fiddle with their equipment mid-song to keep up with the range of dynamics?
I guess my thinking would be different for musicians. For somebody in the audience, it’s a very brief exposure to a sound level that is not intense enough to cause damage from that single exposure so I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s continuous exposure to elevated sound that tends to do the damage.
But I mention in the book that there’s a guy who had surgery for a particular kind of middle ear hearing loss that can be repaired often but the surgery seemed not to work. Then, he attended a Mahler concert at Tanglewood and at one of the particularly loud moments of the piece, his hearing snapped on because it shook loose whatever had not been functioning. It wasn’t a permanent fix but that was lucky for him temporarily but it also shows you that sound is a physical force. And it has this impact. It was strong enough to kind of kick his ear into functioning again. If it’s strong enough to do that, it’s strong enough to work in the other (destructive) direction too.
VIDEO: Inside the Bose testing lab
I saw that vividly at the Bose factory when we went into this room called ‘The Bunker’ where they try to basically run sound equipment for so long and at such high energy levels to find out when they’ll blow themselves apart. And even with ear protection on, it was weird to be in that room. I could feel by placing my hand in front of speakers that the sound was a physical force. It’s vibrating air VERY intensely. And there’s a huge amount of energy pumping into this room. And you think, ‘it’s just sound, it’s an invisible wall.’ No – I could feel it hammering against my hand. And you think of it doing it to this incredibly delicate infrastructure inside your head and it gives you pause.
With people spending years listening to headphones/earphones at volumes so loud that other people can hear what they’re playing, do you expect the aid market to boom?
Yeah, I think so. There’s two trends pushing in opposite directions. On one hand, there’s much greater awareness of high sound levels so you see people using hearing protection in situations where 10 years ago, you would not have. The guys who mow my lawn all wear earplugs now. I think among older carpenters- they never wore ear protection and they’re not going to wear it now since they’ve already got hearing loss. But you’re much more likely to see people cutting grass, using power tools and chainsaws, they’ve got something- they’re protecting their ears.
At the same time, the world is louder and you have these technologies that pump sound straight into our heads. And I think there are indications that audiologists and ENT’s (Ear/Nose/Throat doctors) are seeing tinnitus and sound-related hearing loss at younger ages. And that seems almost certain to continue.
And one challenge is that young people tend to think of hearing loss as an old people problem. And I just gave a talk in a bookstore and in the audience, there’s all people my age and older. And when you say ‘well, it’s an old people problem’ but you realize that for everyone who had sound-induced hearing loss in that audience, the damage they did was when they were young.
The damage that I did to my ears was when I was in my teens and 20’s. So even though the damage is cumulative and it piles up over the years, for most people, it doesn’t manifest itself as a problem to do something about until they’re older. But it began when they were young. So it’s actually a young people problem that young people don’t recognize until they need to do something about it.
VIDEO: Swans Live in the UK ’86
For someone who’s fan at a show where the music is at a punishing level and they don’t happen to have earplugs with them, what’s your suggestion other than to run out of the place?
(laughs) If you don’t have your earplugs with you, I would just use my fingers. My wife and I went to see Dunkirk, which is a continuous explosion from the opening credits until the end, and I had earplugs on my key chain and my wife didn’t have hers even though I get her some for her key chain. But she wadded up Kleenex and put them in her ears. I talked to Vietnam veterans who say that they used to put cigarette butts in their ears to protect them- a hearing scientist I talked to said ‘that would probably be pretty effective.’ (laughs) Another veteran said that he and his buddy used brass cartridge casings, which probably would not be as effective but they had to realize that they were doing SOMETHING where they were hurting themselves.
So I would do whatever I could. I think nowadays, everybody should probably have a pair of earplugs on their keychain or in their pocket so that if you get on the subway or if you’re next to an ambulance stuck in traffic or there’s just so many situations that you’re in where you can tell that these sounds can’t possibly be good for you. Even if it’s only unpleasant, why not filter some of it out?
Do you think that part of the problem of people not using ear plugs as much as they should is that there isn’t someone high profile warning about this, i.e. musicians, celebs, political figures, etc.?
Oh, I bet that’s true. When Ronald Reagan got a hearing aid back in the ’80’s, it had a HUGE impact on hearing aid sales. It created a boom for all the manufacturers and not just the one that made his hearing aide. And so, I’m sure it would be, musicians especially… they would have a big impact. And even though I can’t think of anybody, I’m sure there are people who have spoken up. It’s like when Michael J. Fox spoke up about Parkinson’s Disease. It kind of opens up a conversation when people like that do talk. And I would bet… there can’t be any big rock acts from the late ’60’s, early ’70’s, if they’re still alive, who don’t have some level of hearing loss. It would just be almost impossible for anybody from that era not to have lost hearing ’cause they weren’t doing anything to protect it. And they were exposed to it over a really long period of time to really high sound levels. So yeah, there should be a group of them who come out and say ‘go get your hearing tested.’
A friend of mine who’s my age finally recently got hearing aids. He needed them for a while. He told his doctor ‘I feel really embarrassed, I first noticed this four years ago. I shouldn’t have been so late to come in.’ And the doctor said ‘you’re not late- you’re early. You only waited four years. Most people wait much longer than that.’ And you know, if you suddenly noticed that you couldn’t see or you were having trouble seeing, you would immediately go and do something about it. But with hearing, people tend to rationalize. And hearing loss tends to come on gradually in way very often where if somebody else notices it first and people are not always glad to be told that they have a hearing problem.
In the book, you mentioning that by the time we actually finish it versus the time you were writing it, there would likely be some impressive breakthroughs in technology to aid hearing loss. What’s actually happened since then that you can now report on?
You’ll see advertisements for devices that cost less than essential hearing aids that have many of the same capabilities. There’s a company that’s heavily promoting hearing aids called ‘Eargo’ that you can buy and program with your phone. I haven’t tried them. They’re expensive- maybe not quite as expensive as some hearing aids but they’re significant. Bose has received approval for an over-the-counter hearing aid and the people there told me that they expect it to be on the market by spring. They’re definitely building towards releasing it. I think for a while, it’s going to be confusing because you’ll have to wait until CNET and Gizmodo write about them and you’ll have to do a lot of comparison shopping and reading to have some confidence when buying something to make sure you’re not buying a piece of junk.
But I do think… the latest Apple AirPods do have some potential to make them useful as hearing improvement devices. My Bose earphones has noise cancellation inside the ear canal. I think there’s so much market power in the older people in the hearing aid generation that there’s lots of people out there who are ready to leap into it.
I think one of the reasons that people resist hearing aids is because of the cost and it just seems like such a huge step. But if you can kind of tip toe into it then it’s possible that people wouldn’t wait ten years to do something about it.
WONDERING ABOUT YOUR OWN HEARING NOW?
Not to scare you but if you’re reading this, you’re probably a music fan and you want to hearing as much of the full range of music as you can for a long as you can. To do that, you want to wear earplugs at concerts as Owen suggests and you want to make sure you don’t have any hearing problems right now.
There are a number of sites which you can try out to test your hearing if you think you might be having problems:
- Know Your Noise, done in conjunction with the Australian government
- Hearing Industry Association, which includes a number of hearing aide manufacturers
- 10 Truly Useful Online Hearing Test, which details how each test works:
If you try out one or two of the tests and you’re concerned about the results, it’s time to go to your doctor and get a more thorough test.
Don’t skimp on your ears.
VIDEO: Why Noise Pollution Is More Dangerous Than We Think / The New Yorker Videos
David Owen’s website is at https://www.davidowen.net/
Volume Control is available from Penguin Books.