Jeff Beck, Phil Collins, Ludwig van Beethoven and Eric Clapton – what trait do these diverse musicians all share? All of these musicians experienced – as a result of playing the music they love – permanent hearing loss.

I often work with musicians who have experienced hearing damage as a result of their longtime love of playing music. Exposure to loud music causes noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), which can produce a temporary ringing in the ears (tinnitus); if you continue to expose yourself to the loud music, the condition can become permanent.

And this is true whether you play in a rock band onstage in front of thousands, in a symphony orchestra, in a chamber music group, or at home, rehearsing. Hearing loss can occur when exposed to any sound over 85 decibels (dB) in volume for prolonged lengths of time. If you play an electric guitar onstage, that instrument produces 120dB, but if you play an unamplified violin, it can produce 103dB, and thus cause just as much potential hearing loss. It has been estimated that musicians do more damage to their ears during the hours that they rehearse alone than they do in the short times they spend on stage.

Musicians can take steps to protect their hearing despite this unavoidable exposure to sound that exceeds acceptable levels, even in seemingly quiet rehearsal settings. When investing in high-quality ear protection beyond what can be had from drug-store Styrofoam ear plugs, performers can trust their hearing is protected. Manufactures of ear protection today still use the original and proven design first invented by Etymotic Research over 20 years ago. These musicians earphones are better for your purposes because they allow you to hear the full frequency range of both music and speech, but at lower volumes that don’t damage hearing.

Universal-fit musicians earplugs, starting at about $15 a pair, can be found at most stores that sell musical instruments. Whether you are a professional musician or just someone who plays for fun, I recommend a better form of protection – custom-molded musicians earplugs with the Etymotic filter in place. The custom molded ear plugs will be more comfortable, will block more undesirable sounds while allowing you to hear the full range of music, and will be easier to maintain. They are also more expensive than the universal-fit earplugs, but when you consider that hearing damage is irreversible, the investment is more than worth it.

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