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How Music Works: What's the best way to protect your ears at a concert, and still hear the 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: What's the best way to protect your ears at a concert, and still hear the concert?

The answer:

Every year, millions of people flock to concert venues around the globe to see their favourite acts; but if the shows are loud, they may also be losing some of their hearing along the way.

So how can you protect your ears and still hear the show?

If you’ve ever tried those inexpensive foam earplugs, you’ve probably noticed that they do a great job of blocking out the noise—but they also block out a whole lot of the music. Great if you’re operating a circular saw, not so much if you’re watching your favourite band.

According to Susan Small, assistant professor of audiology at UBC, foam earplugs cut out more sound at the higher end of the scale, where our hearing tends to experience the most damage. It’s also where a lot of music resides, so that’s why you get that muddy sound.

“They’re industrial noise plugs, and if properly inserted, they provide up to about 40 decibels of attenuation of the sound, which can bring it down from a damaging level to non-damaging. But the problem is, the fidelity is affected because it’s not a flat response,” she explains. “So earplugs are completely effective, but the enjoyment of the music is dampened because you don’t hear the high pitches.”

So what to do if you still want to check out the show and save your hearing? The answer is you’ll need to shell out a little extra cash, see an audiologist, and get fitted for musicians’ earplugs that cut the sound evenly across the high and low end—often by 15 or 25 decibels—rather than disproportionately cutting out the highs. That way, you hear all the same sounds, but less loudly.

Small emphasizes that the length of exposure to loud sounds is also a huge factor.

“So 85 dBA, that’s good for 8 hours. But if it’s louder than that, you would have to reduce the number of hours you’re exposed to it. And then really, really loud sounds like jet engines, any length of time is probably not a good idea,” she says. “But for more regular loudness, you just have to reduce the duration as you increase the loudness.”

Small says that even musicians’ earplugs can sometimes be tricky for people who have already experienced hearing loss—a 25 dB cut may knock out too much of the sound, especially at the high end where most hearing loss happens—but that doesn’t mean that people with hearing loss shouldn’t protect their ears.

“It’s a compromise between what you need to hear and what you’re protecting. More is always better in terms of protection; but then if you can’t function you’re not going to use it,” says Small, who adds that sometimes a smaller cut is the best option, especially for people like conductors, classical musicians or band teachers who still need to hear the full range of sound for their work. “So you have to figure out what works for each person.”