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How Music Works: why do my ears ring after a loud concert?

Jennifer Van Evra

This week is CBC Music's Science Week, and all week, we will look at tech innovations that changed music, bring you the best science songs, find out how to design the perfect concert hall, meet music-making robots, check out the latest studies about music and more.

We're also going to answer questions about how much works. Can an opera singer break a glass? Can sound physically knock someone over? Why do some sounds, like nails on a blackboard, cause pain? How do horns make sound?

Here's one: Why do my ears ring after a loud concert?

The answer:

You go out to see a loud concert, and for hours or even days after the musicians have left the stage, you can hear a sustained buzz, hum, ring, hiss or high tone in your ears. So what’s happening?

According to Harvard Medical School, that ringing you’re hearing is actually tinnitus—a condition that nearly everyone experiences for short spells, but that millions of North Americans suffer from chronically.

When people hear normally, sound waves travel into the ear canal and into the middle and inner ear, where thousands of hair cells in the cochlea transform sound waves into electrical nerve signals. Those signals then travel through the auditory nerve to the brain’s auditory cortex, where they are perceived as sound.

But when those hair cells get damaged by loud noises, the brain doesn’t receive those signals it’s expecting. That in turn stimulates abnormal neuron activity as the brain in effect “boosts the volume,” trying to find the missing signal. (Think of it like turning up the volume while you’re trying to find a station on a car radio.) That abnormal activity leads to the illusion of sound.

Certain medications, ear wax and other ear conditions can also create the phenomenon, and the condition is strongly associated with hearing loss, so it disproportionately affects people who are 65 or older. Depression, anxiety, insomnia and pain can also worsen the severity of the condition.

Celebrities who suffer from tinnitus include Chris Martin of Coldplay, Lars Ulrich of Metallica, Neil Young, Pete Townshend, Barbra Streisand, Bono, Steve Martin and many more.

In order to reduce the risk of tinnitus, physicians recommend using ear protection when exposed to loud sounds, because you can’t grow those hair cells back—so wear those earplugs!