Column 78 — Heard, not felt; High Violets tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 12:22 pm May 25, 2006

OK, consider this week’s column a public service announcement. I listen to a lot of music, both in live settings and with a variety of headphones. Within the last few months there has been a ton of press about the dangers of iPods to your hearing. In some articles, that fear bleached over to concern about wearing headphones in general. So I packed up my iPod along with my iPod earbuds, my Etymotic ER*6 earphones and my Ultrasone HFI-700 headphones and dropped in on earguy extraodinare Dr. Britt Thedinger, who’s name I got from commercials heard every morning on NPR affiliate KIOS 91.5 FM. We spent about five minutes talking about iPods and headphones and spent the rest of our two hours together talking about rock shows and earplugs. An area of focus that didn’t make it into the column was concerns faced specifically by musicians who are bombarded by loud music every night. He said being behind the stack protects them somewhat — it’s louder in front of the speakers. But that ultimately there are risks for rock stars. Just look at Pete Townshend, who has become a spokesperson for hearing loss. “The point is, musicians are realizing that they’re at risk,” Thedinger said, “Old rock stars saying, ‘You young people, this will happen to you.'” Thedinger recommends making an appointment and getting fitted for “musicians earplugs” which cost around $150 but are effective in blocking out only dangerous frequencies and not all frequencies — like my trusty yellow earplugs do. It’s a small price to pay to be able to rock when your 65.

Column 78: Don’t be a Tough Guy
What you don’t hear can hurt you
There are a few things that can make you feel like “an old guy” at a rock show. I won’t get into the gloomy specifics involving people looking young enough to be your children or bartenders not even looking for the fluorescent wrist-band — everyone knows you’re old enough to drink, pops.

Earplugs are another one. I’ve been wearing them to rock shows starting back in ’93 when I road-tripped with Lincoln band Mercy Rule to a show at Harry Mary’s in Des Moines. Before their set, bassist/frontwoman Heidi Ore strolled through the crowd of angry punks with a prescription vial in hand.

She wasn’t passing out drugs, she was handing out earplugs. She ambled up to one big guy with his arms crossed and made an offering. He just nodded his head. He didn’t need them. The pixie-ish, bespeckled, five-foot-nothing dynamo responded flatly, “Don’t be a tough guy, just take them.” He did. So did I. And she was right, we needed them. Few bands play as loudly as Mercy Rule did, thanks to Jon Taylor’s roaring guitar.

That was the first time I wore earplugs at a show. I’ve been wearing them ever since — little yellow pieces of foam tied together by a handy blue cord, the kind railroad workers wear in the field and in the shops. I’ve had a case of them in my cupboard all these years and always keep extra pairs in my car in case I forget to take them with me. Dr. Britt Thedinger, an otologist at Ear Specialists of Omaha, says the practice may well have saved my hearing.

I know, I know, you’ve read a gazillion stories about the dangers of loud rock music. I don’t blame you if you stop reading. And to be honest, I didn’t seek out Thedinger to do a story on earplugs. It was my iPod that motivated me, along with the dozens or recent stories about how prolonged listening to iPods could cause hearing damage. Could I have wasted all those years wearing earplugs only to be butchering my hearing with my iPod while cycling the Keystone Trail?

I dropped by Thedinger’s midtown clinic last Saturday morning. What I heard surprised me. I expected gloom and doom. In fact, things aren’t that bad.

Turns out the iPod scare is mostly hype. “I don’t think there’s a huge iPod crisis of people losing their hearing right and left,” he said. Still, too much of anything can’t be a good thing. Thedinger said a sign that you’re listening to your iPod too loudly is if the person next to you can clearly make out what you’re listening to. That’s pretty freaking loud. But what about my trusty Etymotic in-ear isolator earphones? “If they’re turned up so loud that they hurt your ears, you’re damaging your hearing,” he said.

Pretty simple advice. Okay, so while I’m here, what about those standard yellow, foam earplugs that cost about 50 cents at the Quik Pick? Are they doing the trick? Thedinger said they block about 29 dBs, more than adequate to protect me at a typical rock show, which he says can get as loud as 115 dBs. Wadded up toilet paper, by the way, blocks only 3 to 5 dBs — in other words, it doesn’t work.

But even if I didn’t wear earplugs at every show, Thedinger said I’d probably be okay. Hearing damage occurs from prolonged high-decibel noise exposure. “At that level, it has to be continuous,” Thedinger said. “The quiet few minutes between songs is usually enough to recover.”

It also depends on the room’s acoustics and where you stand, like right in front of speakers that can blow out up to 125 dBs. Even a short exposure at that level can erode your ability to hear frequencies between 2,000 to 8,000 hz — the range where human speech makes lispy syllables, like “sh,” “th,” p’s, and f’s.

Which brings us to tinnitus — the ringing in your ears that everyone’s experienced after a night at The Qwest Center. Turns out that ringing is always there. We just don’t notice it until our hearing has been damaged — then it’s all we hear.

“When I was doing my residency in a Boston emergency room, we’d have patients come in after a concert at The Garden saying, ‘My ears are ringing and it’s driving me nuts.’ The membranes had swollen in their ears resulting in decreased hearing capability, so they could hear the tinnitus. After a few days the swelling went down, their hearing improved and the tinnitus went away.”

Unless, of course, they sheered off the nerves, permanently damaging their hearing.

You might recover just fine after a few loud concerts without earplugs, but night after night of unprotected hearing will sneak up on you. “It’s an insidious process,” Thedinger said. “People don’t realize the damage they’ve done until it’s too late. And once you’ve lost it, it’s gone.”

It still amazes me every time I look around at rock shows and notice that I’m the only one wearing earplugs. The excuse that they “ruin the experience” is lame. They allow me to actually focus more on the bands and worry less about damage — even if they may make me look like an old wuss in the eyes of guys too tough to wear them.

“You can be as tough as you want,” the good doctor said, “but it’s a real pain in the ass being hearing impaired.”

Tonight at O’Leaver’s, the gorgeous sounds of Portland’s High Violets. The four-piece, led by vocalist Kaitlyn ni Donovan, has been compared to every lush, ’90s ambient band you can think of, from My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive to Jesus and Mary Chain and, well, Lush. Strangely, their website says they’re in Lawrence tonight at the Jackpot and that the Omaha show isn’t until June 16, but both the One Percent and O’Leaver’s sites say this show is tonight, with Landing on the Moon opening. $5, 9:30.

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