If there is one thing I should say up front it is that I learned to enjoy music to the fullest the hard way. Learn from my mistakes and don't take your hearing for granted. Because noise-induced hearing loss is irreversible.
The drug called sound
The lights are turned down and the room is full. People are standing in small groups or pairs, talking, laughing, drinking. There is an energy in the air, a feeling of anticipation.
The actual venue almost doesn’t matter.
It could be one of those dive bars I went to in university, blowing off steam with my friends after studying for an exam. Or perhaps a nightclub during those years just after landing my first job, the DJ setting out a soundtrack for the night. It could even be a venue where up-and-coming or established bands are ready to transport us with the tunes.
But one thing is always the same.
The thrum of music blasted out of large speakers. The drum and bass so loud that I feel it reverberating in my core. The need to shout to be heard or miming to get my point across. The giving in to dancing because, really, we’re not here to talk.
It’s never long before my ears start to suffer from the sharp assault and my head begins to ache. Even in my youth, I could never stand the loud places for very long.
And the aftereffects of a loud night always felt surreal.
- The high-pitched ringing competing with all other sounds, especially the human voice
- Sounds distant and muffled, like when your ears are plugged up during the descent of a flight
- And the echo within my own head when I speak making it hard for me to know if I’m speaking softly or shouting at people
What’s going on here?
We are able to hear because sound waves vibrate our eardrums and move into the inner ear, or cochlea. Inside this tiny, snail-shaped organ are rows of microscopic hair cells. When they encounter the sound waves, auditory nerves transmit those signals to the brain where the signals are interpreted and ‘heard’.
If those microscopic hairs get damaged, which happens when there is loud or persistent noise, hearing loss or a ringing in the ears – known as tinnitus – can develop.
For some people, the ringing never goes away. I’ve been lucky that it always has in the past, but research shows that hearing damage due to loud noises can be cumulative, building up over years of exposure.
Even if they fade away, the short-term impacts of tinnitus are real: the inability to communicate easily, difficulty sleeping, physical pain. But it’s the longer term affects we need to consider before that next gig. The way permanent hearing loss can affect your relationships, make it harder to progress in your career and change the hobbies you currently enjoy.
I still love music and the experience of going to a gig or a live concert. But now, I’m much more cautious. I stand away from the loud speakers, take breaks from the noise and go outside periodically and I’ve even started wearing ear plugs for stadium concerts.
So next time you’re out, look for me. I’ll be the one in the back, ear plugs snugly in place, moving to the beat. Still immersed in the music.