Treble Trouble

It's OK to rock out if you know how to protect your fragile inner ear

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If it’s stimulation you crave,you’re in the right place — humans are the noisiest creatures on the planet, and there are a lot of us here in the big city. Sonic bombardment has a caffeine-like appeal: it increases the heart rate, tenses muscles and generally revs us. But when it comes to your ears, using it can mean losing it. Unfortunately, hearing loss is one of those things that creeps up on you over time. The ability to hear very high frequencies is first to go, so by the time the damage affects your ability to hear common sounds, it is highly advanced.

You might get some protection from cheap drugstore plugs, but they tend to block more treble than bass notes, which are the most damaging. If you’re a dedicated concert-goer, head to an audiologist for ER-15s, customized earplugs that cost $175, last for life, let through the higher frequencies and block the lower ones better, enhancing protection and aesthetics. These aren’t just for rock fans either. Audiologists say you can hurt your ears just by sitting through enough Wagner operas.

There’s another trick. When loud music, pneumatic drills or subway trains intrude, try humming or singing. A small muscle in the middle ear called the stapedius contracts when you do this, creating a barrier between you and the sound. And if you know you’re going to be bingeing aurally, seek out quiet in the days before. It will intensify the experience and you’ll have less ear wear and tear.

One piece of good news for those who like to crank up the volume is that research shows that the more you like whatever you’re listening to, the less damage it will do. Apparently, enjoyment creates electrical activity in the brain that makes you less susceptible to hearing loss.

To catch changes in your hearing early, it’s a good idea to have an audiologist measure the very soft sounds emitted from your ear by the vibration of nerve endings. Subtle changes in these show up long before you get a change in hearing, so keeping tabs on your personal broadcast will give you early warning of problems.WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

“A lot of what hurts ears is the quality of the sound as well as the volume. If the person mixing the sound is able to get a good hi-fi mix, it doesn’t have to be loud to be exciting. We need a certain level of volume in a concert situation in order to feel involved in the music. We’ve lost the ability that once must have been normal when people had to pay close attention or they would miss the experience. Since the 60s at least, we’ve been used to the music coming out to get us. The part of your hearing that goes early is the high frequencies that’s what allows you to hear if an instrument is in tune, for instance. Young people are exposed to more and more loud sound, and it’s disturbing to think of generations of kids growing up with a reduced ability to hear one another.”


“Lower, beat-driven sounds are associated with an angry culture. Teenagers are drawn to them. They have a raw, immediate impact on the body and (express) a fascination with death, adrenaline, sexuality — the life themes. You want a lot of impact and you want it fast you want to condense the message. People who have difficulties listening are attracted to what’s easier to access (and low frequencies like drumbeats are easier). But it’s (valuable to) keep yourself open to the full sensory experience. When I’m in the car, I put the bass low and the treble high. For a lot of pop or rock, when you do that there’s nothing left. The recording is geared for bass — it’s depleted in the higher range.”

MORANA PETROFSKI, assistant director, Toronto Listening Centre

“If you leave a venue and your hearing feels a little numb, you hear ringing or buzzing or feel pressure in your ears, these are signs you may have overdone it. Wait 16 to 18 hours before you re-expose yourself. If you go to a rock concert Friday night, don’t mow your lawn until Sunday. Rock has to be loud, but it does not have to be intense. Turning up the bass a bit fools listeners into thinking the music is louder than it is.’

MARSHALL CHASIN, audiologist, director of auditory research at Musicians’ Clinics of Canada, adjunct professor, department of linguistics, U of T

“If music becomes so loud that you can’t distinguish the pattern, the rhythm, the pitch, then the issue is not one of music but of loudness as an end in itself. In traditional societies, loudness is so dominant in possession music that it scrambles the senses and opens you up to other dimensions of reality. In rave music there’s an attempt to have this ecstatic experience.”

DAVID TURNER, professor of anthropology and religious studies, U of T

“It’s generally accepted that as you age you lose your hearing. But researchers have looked at people in remote areas who live a quieter life, and even into their 80s they have significantly less hearing loss than (people) in the more industrialized areas. The technology is available to make a lot of machines quieter, but they tend not to sell well because we equate power with loudness.’

TOMMY CHOO, audiologist, Canadian Hearing Society

“When we come from a quiet to a loud place, the ear quickly comes in with a mechanism called a threshold shift. We’re actually experiencing a form of deafness at that point. In noisy (potentially damaging) environments, we end up saying, “It’s not that bad after all.’ Very loud music massages our body if we’re very numb, it can give us a sense that we’re feeling something. If we surround ourselves with loudness, there’s also a chance we don’t want to hear what goes on inside us. We have to have tragedy before we allow ourselves silence as a culture.”

HILDEGARD WESTERKAMP, World Forum for Acoustic Ecology

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