University takes steps to protect future musicians from hearing loss

Kris Chesky
As director of education and research for the Texas Center of Music and Medicine, Kris Chesky is educating students in the University of North Texas College of Music about the possible danger of noise-induced hearing loss caused by hours of rehearsal on instruments, and resources the students can use to protect their hearing
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Dedicated musicians enclose themselves in tiny practice rooms for hours, repeating excerpts again and again with the sound bouncing off the walls. They play in orchestras in front of the rat-a-tat of snare drums, the blaring of trumpets, and the booming of tubas.

For all this dedication, they could be slowly ruining one of their most important assets as a musician - their hearing.

The University of North Texas is setting out to change that.

Through the Texas Center for Music and Medicine at UNT, the UNT College of Music is educating students about the risk of noise-induced hearing loss in music ensembles - helping them save their hearing for longer musical careers and improving their quality of life.

"Hearing loss is a huge issue, not only in music education, but for all of society," said Dr. Kris Chesky, director of education and research for the Texas Center of Music and Medicine. "Digital technologies have given us more opportunities to create sound. We're exposed to noise from computer games, loud movies in theaters, earphones, car stereos and more."

About 28 million people in the United States have some form of hearing loss, and research by several organizations - including UNT - suggests 30 percent to 50 percent of musicians report hearing problems. To combat this problem, UNT started distributing information this semester to its College of Music students in ensembles, informing them of the possible danger of noise-induced hearing loss and advising them of resources to protect their hearing. Ensemble directors and teachers are discussing noise-induced hearing loss and prevention methods with their students.

In addition, Chesky developed and teaches a new course, "Occupational Health: Lessons from Music," for undergraduate students of any major. The class, which began last fall, focuses on musculoskeletal, hearing and mental health issues associated with musical occupations.

Chesky hopes schools and musical organizations across the globe follow UNT's lead.

"Raising awareness about hearing loss is an easy, efficient, cost-effective first step that schools can take to prevent injuries, and it has long-term implications for keeping students safe so they can fully enjoy music for the rest of their lives," he said.

Chesky has firsthand knowledge of noise-induced hearing loss. While a music major at college, he played trumpet all day at schools and at night in clubs. He couldn't wait to go to sleep at night to escape the constant ringing in his ears - known as tinnitus. Now he deals with hearing loss, though he continues to play trumpet professionally. Given the chance, he would have paid more attention to protecting his ears as a college music student.

"My educators were uninformed and unaware. It was not part of the educational culture," Chesky said. "If I had known, I would have avoided sounds that hurt - snare drums, horns. I would have given my ears more rest after loud exposure. Especially as a music performer, I would have turned down the sound."

Dr. Brian J. Fligor, chair of the National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) Music-Induced Hearing Loss Task Force and director of education for the NHCA, says recommendations such as UNT's are vital to protect hearing.

"Musicians, more than any other profession, rely on their hearing for optimal performance of their art. It is therefore imperative that good ‘hearing hygiene' be promoted by schools," says Fligor, director of diagnostic audiology for Children's Hospital in Boston and instructor in otology and laryngology at Harvard Medical School. "Instilling good hearing-health habits early will go a long way toward combating potentially career-ending injuries."

UNT's hearing-loss education and prevention recommendations are the result of a Health Promotion in Schools of Music project (www.unt.edu/hpsm), funded by the National Endowment for the Arts; the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the organization that awards the Grammys; the International Foundation for Music Research; NAMM, formerly known as the National Association of Music Merchants; and the Scott Foundation. UNT's Health Promotion in Schools of Music recommendations were sent to all college-level schools of music that are accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music. NASM has more than 600 accredited college programs nationwide.

UNT music students are given the following facts and tips to protect their hearing.

Facts about noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL):

As many as 50 percent of musicians have problems with hearing loss;

  • Risk of injury is based on a combination of sound intensity and duration;
  • Listening to music, live or recorded, in performance or rehearsal, can result in significant exposure to high sound levels;
  • Hearing loss is cumulative: all sources (24/7) of elevated sound levels contribute;
  • Permanent noise-induced hearing loss is irreversible; and
  • Temporary noise-induced hearing loss is reversible with adequate rest and recovery.

Tips for short-term prevention of hearing loss:

  • Listen to recorded music at moderate loudness levels;
  • Reduce exposure time to sound levels above 85 decibels;
  • Reduce repeated or cumulative exposure;
  • Protect yourself from exposure to hazardous sound environments;
  • Use ear protection in noisy environments; and
  • Rest the ears between exposures to loud sounds.

Tips for long-term prevention of hearing loss:

  • Get a baseline comprehensive audiological evaluation (offered free to UNT students on campus);
  • Follow up with annual checkups;
  • Know the symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss:
  • Temporary threshold shifts
  • Ear discomfort after exposure to loud sounds
  • Ringing and buzzing in the ears
  • Difficulty hearing in noisy environments.

Students are also directed to an informational video about noise-induced hearing loss at: http://media.unt.edu:8080/ramgen/cdl/MUAG1500/video/hearing_exam.rm.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108