By Alexander C. Kafka

In a study at West Virginia University, in Morgantown, 130 music students showed a casual attitude about hearing protection despite musicians’ elevated risks of hearing loss. The study’s authors think their data “supports the need for continuing efforts to raise awareness in student musicians” about “the risks of excessive noise/music exposure.”

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Ashleigh J. Callahan, an assistant professor in the university’s department of speech pathology and audiology, conducted the research with a fellow faculty member, Norman J. Lass, and four graduate students, Lindsay B. Foster, Jessica E. Poe, Erin L. Steinberg, and Kathleen A. Duffe. The team writes that “annual hearing evaluations and consistent use of HPD’s [hearing-protection devices], as well as environmental modifications to reduce sound levels and reductions in prolonged instrument playing time, are all options to aid in preservation of hearing in young adult musicians.”

The group’s research was presented last week in Philadelphia at the annual meeting of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and is being submitted to a journal called Medical Problems of Performing Artists.

According to the paper, while 30 percent of the general college-student population showed some loss in high-frequency hearing (according to research published in 1998), a 2008 paper showed more than half of undergraduate music students experiencing such loss.

A number of studies have shown, the paper’s authors write, that musicians are at increased risk for hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears), hyperacusis (intolerance of loudness), diplacusis (difficulty in perceiving pitch), and other changes. According to those studies, 12 percent of professional orchestra musicians said they were “not at all” concerned about their hearing and 45 percent said they were “only a little” concerned. Yet 24 percent of professional orchestra players reported experiencing tinnitus for at least five minutes at a time, with almost half of those reporting constant tinnitus and a quarter experiencing tinnitus affecting their sleep. Seven percent of the respondents sought treatment for hyperacusis and 8 percent had been treated for sound distortion, according to that earlier data summarized by Callahan and her colleagues.

In the West Virginia study, students said they played their primary instrument from five to 17 hours a week, and 79 percent said they never wear hearing protection (like foam or wax plugs, or sound-blocking headsets) during practice or rehearsal. Ninety percent did not wear hearing protection during ensemble performances. Fifty-three percent said they didn’t think hearing protection was needed. Lesser percentages said they didn’t wear hearing protection because it hindered them from hearing environmental sounds, was uncomfortable, made communication difficult, was a hassle, or looks strange. Very few respondents reported using hearing protection while practicing their instrument, according to the paper.

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The students were also asked about participation in 14 other activities involving potential noise exposure, including concerts (95 percent attended), use of iPod/MP3 players (92 percent), and going to restaurants and bars with loud music (87 percent), as well as machine use (15 percent), target shooting (14 percent), hunting (11 percent), and construction work (6 percent).

Only 15 percent of students surveyed agreed with the sentence, “I have difficulty hearing.” However, when asked about tinnitus, 54 percent reported occasional ringing or buzzing, with 5 percent reporting “frequently occurring tinnitus.” Tinnitus, the authors note “is often a sign of transient damage to the auditory system from excessive noise exposure.” Previous studies, the authors note, “have shown that over half of students majoring in music display declines in hearing over a three-year period, suggesting that some students in this study who perceive no difficulty hearing may actually have reduced audiometric thresholds.”

“Although student musicians are not defined as an ‘at risk’ population according to the Occupational Safety and Health Association,” Callahan and her coauthors write, previous studies have shown “that all tested student musicians, regardless of instrument type, were exposed to daily noise doses that exceeded both OSHA and NIOSH [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] standards.” In other words, “if student musicians were regulated under a governing agency such as OSHA, a hearing conservation program would be required.”

Callahan said in a phone interview that she herself is not a musician, but that part of her personal interest in the topic was spurred by a friend who is a school chorus and band teacher who had experienced hearing loss. She said that her suspicion, from anecdotal evidence, is that some music students reason that if they’re not playing stereotypically loud music like rock that they’re at minimal risk of hearing deterioration. Studies, alas, show that’s simply not the case, she said. Being surrounded by young musicians, instead of players who have spent decades performing, might reinforce such misconceptions, Callahan said. “As young musicians,” she said, “they don’t really think about hearing loss being a factor for them now.”

Music faculty were supportive of the study, Callahan said, having witnessed or experienced more hearing loss than their young students. And having faculty who are committed to auditory health, she said, is key to successful education in hearing protection. In follow-up research, Callahan said, she hopes to investigate how the data break down for various kinds of ensembles—orchestras, choirs, jazz bands, and so on.

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