Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Does Music Make You Deaf? Music Part I

Music can help you hear better in old age

I was sitting on stage the other day, a piano pounding behind me, dulcimer on the left, fiddle and banjo on the right.

And it was LOUD.

My own instrument - the recorder - is high and often shrill in its upper range. After an hour or so, we took a break, and I had that same throbbing sound in my ears that I used to get going to rock concerts.  Great, a new worry.

How does music affect your hearing?

I did some reading.  It turns out it's not as bad as I thought.

Loud sounds - including loud music - is bad for your hearing.  REALLY bad.  The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that 20% of teenagers have minor hearing loss and can't hear rustles, whispers, or raindrops (a NY Times piece summarizes the research).  Listening to loud music on headphones is particularly problematic - and particularly common among young people.

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So it's often been assumed that musicans, who spend their time surrounded by loud sounds, would be particularly vulnerable to hearing loss. 

It turns out it doesn't seem to be true. 

A study published by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health comparing classical musicians with non-musicians found few differences in hearing accuity or in tinitus - that high annoying ringing you can get from chronic hearing damage.  Highly exposed musicians, however, showed some hearing loss in the low range - particularly when they had other risk factors.  Other studies, however, have reported that violinists tend to lose hearing in the ear closest to their instrument - the left. But overall, the literature finds that most damage is caused not by playing your own instrument, but by being surrounded by the instruments of others.

Musical training helps LISTENING, however

One of the many skills musicians learn, however, is EXCELLENT for listening, particularly for older people. 

People who play instruments need to be able to pull particular threads out of a complex tapestry of sound.  For example, they need to integrate their own harmony into a symphonic line.   Or they need to make fine discriminations in tone and attack to play in tune and with emotional force. 

Turns out, that skill is TERRIFIC if you're trying to listen to someone speak in a loud space.

Every been to a cocktail party?  Or tried to have a conversation in a loud coffee bar?

Musical training makes it a lot easier. 

In a piece reported by Science Daily, Nina Kraus, of Northwestern University, says "Musical training makes musicians really good at picking out melodies, the bass line, the sound of their own instruments from complex sounds."  That turns out to be a critical listening skill.

Many older people - and lots of those younger ones that suffer from low level hearing loss - can hear sound, but can't discriminate the words that are being said.  The same ability to discriminate musical sounds makes it easier to understand words in loud environments.

Just one more reason to study music.

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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