High decibels and damage to hearing

High decibels and damage to hearing

Musicians are known to get hearing damage (eg hearing loss, tinnitus) in the long term from playing in loud gigs and concerts, and even the violin on its own is quite capable of generating 100dB only a few inches under its player’s left ear.

If anyone has concerns about possible damage to hearing from excessive exposure to sound at a high decibel level there is available for the iPhone and iPad an inexpensive, accurate and very well provided decibel meter app SPLnFFT. I don’t know if it is available on Android phones.

SPLnFFT displays on-screen live decibel measurements in the range 20-130 dB derived from sound signals received by the device. There is also a real time "thermometer" scale detailing the possible effects of various decibel levels from 20-120:
20 Almost silent
30 Very quiet
40 Quiet
50 Comfortable
60 Moderate
70 Loud - possible annoyance
80 Too loud - exposure time limited
90 Very noisy - exposure time < 2h 30min
100 Very noisy - exposure time < 15 min
110 Extremely noisy - exposure time < 1min
120 Intolerable
and, provided by me,
130 You do not want to go there if you value your life!

In any listening session the app displays not only the live dB reading but also the instantaneous minimum, maximum, and various kinds of statistical averages ("Leq" is probably the most generally useful one). The app also provides a window displaying graphically in real time the frequencies currently being received. There are many other technical features that I have yet to explore.

The FFT in the app’s name refers to "Fast Fourier Transform", an advanced mathematical method for breaking down a sound or any other signal into its constituent frequencies so that they can be displayed on screen.

I’ve tried out the app with my two violins and an iPad about 3 feet away (just try holding an iPad up by one’s left ear while playing the violin!), and by playing strongly over the whole range of the instrument I obtained, depending on which fiddle I was using, dB readings of 86-89 dB without a mute, 83-87 dB with an orchestral mute, and 75-80dB with a heavy practice mute. However, these readings were for the sound received by the iPad 3 feet away, and because of the inverse square law non-muted sounds would be equivalent to 90-100 dB or so under my left ear.

For some time now I’ve been using a cotton wool plug in my left ear when playing in many music ensembles (in particular symphony orchestras, anything with PA, and some sessions), and the results I have from the above tests do not persuade me otherwise. Playing with a plug in my left ear in those circumstances actually helps me not only to hear my own intonation better but also the fine detail of what is going on around me.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

Threshold of Hearing — 0 dB
Rustling Leaves — 10 dB
Whisper — 20 dB
Normal Conversation — 60 dB
Busy Street Traffic — 70 dB
Vacuum Cleaner — 80 dB
Large Orchestra — 98 dB
Walkman at Maximum Level — 100 dB
Front Rows of Rock Concert — 110 dB
Threshold of Pain — 130 dB
Military Jet Takeoff — 140 dB
Instant Perforation of Eardrum — 160 dB

Source: http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/sound/u11l2b.cfm

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

Good analysis, Trevor. If only there was the awareness (and tools) 30 years ago that there are now!

The big problem is that people with normal hearing have a high volume tolerance level. In other words, even though sounds are loud, they do not cause discomfort. Hearing loss and hearing tolerance work in direct proportion - so -you’ve guessed it - loud volume causes hearing loss without the person realising, until it is too late.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

That is scary

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

I’ve often wondered if the modern devices that people use to listen to music with an ear phone is not creating a generation of people with hearing problems. It’s something I’m aware of as I use headphones when I’m recording, which I do quite often. Even though headphones are relatively low Db the fact that they are so close to the ear means they can do damage. I try and keep the levels as low as practical.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

I found 2 similar apps at Google Play - no idea if they are any good:

deciBel
and Sound Meter

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

Decibel 10th (iOS) is also good. The measurement is accurate to within 2dB or so but for full accuracy you can also calibrate it to an external meter and store that setting - which I have, and then I get the extra feature of Decibel 10th, which is that it will take a snapshot of the levels at a set interval and you can export that as .csv which means you can keep a record. I used it for continuous measurement and for record-keeping when playing in a neonatal ward. But you could equally use that facility in a band or session, so you have a record.

It’s free.

Interesting about exposure levels when playing (even unamplified). I can imagine that with the fiddle. For amplified gigs I use musicians earplugs which give you a balanced attenuation of around 20dB so you still hear properly (just quieter). Although I realised I forgot them on the way to a gig on Saturday and wish I’d turned around and picked them up. It’s not just the sheer volume that causes damage, but the length of exposure. 2 and a bit hours in a noisy pub with PA = not fun without hearing protection. Probably wasn’t that much fun for the punters either, sitting close to loudspeakers.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

I second the use of custom made earplugs with dB filters if you find you are commonly playing or working with music in a loud environment.

In my previous life working as a Sound Engineer, I got a pair of these and they are simply fantastic and would be a huge improvement over cotton buds.

At the time - about 8 years ago they cost me about €300 from a qualified Audiologist - they are fully moulded to my ear and with a -15dB filter (though you can choose the filter level you want).

As mentioned above the attenuation is balanced across the range (though you will understandably add a very slight low frequency hum from plugging your ear).

If you want to seriously protect your ears - this is a small price to pay.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

This might seem like an odd way to address this issue, but here goes:

During my college years I lived in a hovel that was infested with crickets. I tolerated them for quite some time because though I heard them (especially at night), I didn’t see much of them. Eventually, I discovered the extent of the infestation by spraying some poison into a crack in the ceiling. The result being that hundreds of crickets came scrambling out of the crack, dropping to the floor where they writhed in cricket agony to their deaths. It would have made a great scene in any movie based on the attack of killer crickets.

That being said, I later discovered that if I plugged my left ear, I couldn’t hear crickets chirping or any other sound more or less of the same pitch. Nowadays I have an alarm clock that chirps. If I’m sleeping with my left ear snug in the pillow, all I hear are clicks made by the clock, but not the tone. Also, I’ve noticed that the A note on the 17th fret of my banjo is somewhat muted when I do my right/left experiment.

I’m not certain if my cause and effect theory is true, but the way I see it, any one of the following could be true:

1. While cohabiting with my insect friends, I resorted to sleeping on my left, and the prolonged exposure to the cricket’s pitch wore out my right ear.

2. Back in the day, I was a fan of every lead guitar player from Alvin Lee to Johnny Winter, and cranking up the stereo was probably not helpful.

3. It’s bad luck to kill a cricket, so I got payback for my wholesale slaughter of the miserable creatures.

But I do tend to go with theory #1 partly because it makes more sense given the fact that only one ear is affected. Also, after a few beers, it’s a fun story to tell, especially when demonstrating my syndrome by plugging my ears to the sound of crickets. At any rate, if true, it shows that even if a pitch is expressed at a level as low as that of a cricket chirp, prolonged exposure could do permanent damage.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

I recently put new, high quality strings on my fiddle, replacing a twenty-year old student set. I noticed a definite increase in volume, sometimes to the point of left-ear discomfort, especially after a lot of intensive practice. I’ve thought about investing in a mute. Anyone out there with comments about types/brands?

I don’t recall killing any crickets, except possibly for a college entomology lab, so I don’t think that’s related to my hearing issues. Your results may vary. Also, just because it’s cool, I should bring up mole crickets, which create special burrows shaped like horns from which to call. The burrows make very effective amplifiers. I encountered them in Oklahoma, USA, but apparently there are species world-wide.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

Sound monitoring software is only as good as the hardware it runs on. I’m not sure that an i-pad microphone is the right kind to do meaningful noise level measurements. Pro kit normally uses very high quality omni-directional microphones. The position of the microphone is crucial to accurate monitoring. Most published safety levels assume high technical standards of measurement.

If in any doubt, turn the volume down. I wouldn’t rely on an app to protect something as important as my hearing.

Posted by .

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

[*That is scary*] yes BB, it is. And very true.

Guitarist Jeff Beck’s hearing was damaged, not by the loud rock concert volume, but by listening to music at a very high SPL on a Walkman (remember those?). Music was so good he turned it up more and more. Ears didn’t complain - but their function got damaged, big time.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

what’s the difference between an entomologist and an etymologist?

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

One studies words, and the other studies wee beasties.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

the etymologist would know!

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

This is a great topic—i wonder how many people think ITM isn’t going to damage their hearing just because it isn’t usually amplified. I suffer from tinnitus and recently took up the fiddle and though I’m very good about wearing earplugs I think my T has gotten worse. I realized that not only does the fiddle project sound from its body, but alot of sound is transferred through the chinrest into your jaw and then to your inner ear. i imagine that too could be damaging. Planning on getting a gelrest to put over the chinrest.

The concertina isn’t a quiet instrument either, which I also play. I have access to a dB meter at work i keep meaning to bring it home and do some testing.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

The world of music is jam-packed with musicians who suffer from tinnitus, and often hearing loss too. Violinists, brass players and drummers seem to top the ranks - and the funny thing is they each think they’re alone and unusual in having either.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

There are plenty of rock musicians and even actors who have been vocal about their hearing issues. Are there any well known ITMusicians who have come out as tinnitus sufferers I wonder? It’d be interesting to hear them talk about it.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

Although the internal mic on portable devices such as the iOS iPhone and iPad may not be of professional studio quality it is nevertheless good enough for the non-studio market of those devices (otherwise they’d be a darn sight more expensive than they are already!). I understand pro quality mics can be plugged into iOS devices if desired.
I am still on the learning curve for SPLnFFT, but one interesting feature is the FFT window which displays in real time the frequencies of the sound being received. A red circle is used to indicate the strongest frequency. I have used this to confirm what I know from other sources, namely that the strongest frequency of the violin’s open G string is the octave, and not the very weak fundamental. The violin’s weak G fundamental arises necessarily from the instrument’s proportions and internal volume. The cello, for instance, does not have this weakness.
SPLnFFT also provides an A440 test tone, and provision for different headset mic types.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

Given that the decibel scale is logarithmic I would be surprised if a factory made electronic component like the iPhone microphone would vary sufficiently in gain from one to the next to throw things out by more than a few decibels, or if it did there would be some sort of internal calibration so that, say, the ADC stayed within range.

(the scale quoted by Oirish doesn’t make much sense because most of the those things requires a distance to be stated. Is this military jet engine in my living room or that of the neighbour across the road - or do I mean vacuum cleaner ?)

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

I ordered some musician earplugs on ebay, they were around $10 I believe. I started wearing one in my left ear when I play violin (daily). I’m so used to my ear plug that it bothers me to play without it. I don’t know how much they reduce the sound but it’s enough so that it’s comfortable for me. My practice room has a low ceiling, so that’s partly why my violin is so loud. When I play in a large room with a high ceiling I don’t need the ear plug.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

On a number of occasions in my life I had to leave a concert because I knew that my hearing was getting damaged by the excessive volume.
The immediate effect was headache and profound ringing. This effect has lingered to the following morning, and a few times the ringing lasted for a week or more. I know I must have damaged my hearing permanently on those occasions, and I don’t know what sounds I am missing now due to that. Thankfully I have since taken care to protect my ears against those types of insults, and I won’t go to concerts with over-amplified "music".

Performers who do this to their listeners should be fined or arrested. Why do these "musicians" damage the ears of the audience?! They are physically harming the most important human sense.
This is like walking through a museum and having the paintings poke you in the eye when you look at them. It’s crazy!!

Typical un-amplified or minimally amplified session music volume is fine, and I don’t need to hear any music louder than that.

Re: High decibels and damage to hearing

A band I play in regularly for Playford dancers discovered recently that we could be heard quite well enough by the dancers (and each other) if we didn’t use the PA. So now we don’t use the PA.