Music And Hearing Loss

Did You Know We Hear Music Differently as We Age?

The average range of hearing for children is from approximately 20 hertz to 20,000 hertz. Over time we lose the ability to hear high frequency sounds. The high range that can be heard by a young adult is about 16,000 hertz. In another 10 years, a 30-year-old is often down to a mere 12,000 hertz. The chart below illustrates the frequencies we hear and how they relate to the octaves in music.​

The chart below illustrates the frequencies we hear and how they relate to the octaves in music.

Frequency (Hz)OctaveDescription
16 to 321stThe human threshold of hearing and the lowest pedal notes of a pipe organ.
32 to 5122nd to 5thRhythm frequencies, where the lower and upper bass notes lie.
512 to 20486th to 7thDefines human speech intelligibility, gives a horn-like or tinny quality to sound.
2048 to 81928th to 9thGives presence to speech, where labial and fricative sounds lie.
8192 to 1638410th
Brilliance, the sounds of bells and the ringing of cymbals and sibilance in speech.

How Can I Protect My Hearing When Listening to Music?

It is reported that 1.1 billion people ages 12-35 listen to personal audio devices at unsafe volumes, risking permanent hearing loss. Unfortunately, standard earphones often do not fit the ear well and allow in significant levels of ambient noise. The listener then has to increase the volume of the music to drown out the background noise.

Earbuds should fit snuggly in the ears and create a “seal” to isolate sound. There are many different options available so trying them on to find the best fit is recommended. Custom earmolds are also available for listeners who desire a precise fit. Over-the-ear headphones should cover your ears completely to block out ambient noise.

Limiting the amount of time you listen is also important. Listeners should not exceed volume levels of 80 decibels for longer than 60 minutes. Extended exposure to music (or any other noises) over specific decibel levels damages the hair cells of the inner ear leading to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Noise exposure is a massive problem in America. It is estimated one in every five individuals has some degree of tinnitus (ringing in the ears) or hearing damage as a direct result of noise.

When listening to live music at loud levels the use of hearing protection is recommended. There are many different types of in-the-ear earplugs as well as over-the-ear earmuffs so just like earbuds, it’s important to find the one that best fits your ear. Custom earplugs can also be made that contain a flat attenuation filter, allowing the wearer to continue to hear music accurately, but at a reduced volume.

For musicians, music is not just something they like to listen to, it’s their career. Certain musical instruments carry specific risk: the left ear is typically worse for violists, violinists, and drummers, while the right ear is typically worse for flute and piccolo players. In an orchestra, school band or rock group, hearing loss may also be associated with the location of another musician’s instrument in relation to your ear (ex., a trumpet or trombone player may be seated next to you and cause risk to your hearing).

What if Hearing Loss Does Occur? What Should I Consider When Selecting a Hearing Instrument?

Much of the focus of hearing aid research and development is centered on speech perception. Recently, greater attention has been given to the perception of music. Speech is very different than music in overall intensity and frequency. As mentioned earlier, the frequency range of music can range from 27 Hz (lowest organ note) to 16,000 Hz (bells, cymbals) while speech sounds occur between 125-8000 Hz. What may be good for speech is not always good for music, so it is important that your audiologist be aware that music is a significant part of your life so they can choose a device that addresses not just your need to hear speech, but also your ability to enjoy music.

In addition to differences between speech and music, it is also important to consider that musicians tend to be critical listeners with trained ears that can tolerate more sounds and background noise than the average listener. They also tend to have a good auditory memory.

Some of the advanced features in modern hearing aids designed to improve speech understanding can actually cause music to sound distorted. To keep music listening enjoyable, it is necessary to choose an appropriate hearing device and have it programmed with music listening in mind. If the hearing aid was not designed with music listening and high levels of input in mind, programming changes will not be able to address distortion that may occur while listening to music. Working with your audiologist to choose the right device from the start is crucial.

What Hearing Aid Advances Mean for Music and Musicians

Musicians, and those who like to listen to music, can now receive an amplified signal that is effectively distortion free. Software changes can still be made when necessary that can further optimize the listening environment.