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Turn Down the Volume or Plug Your Ears!

A teenager listening to classical music with headphones. The volume is too loud as he needs to remove the headphones to hear.

Several years ago I read with alarm that 40% of the incoming students at the University of Tennessee who had listened to rock music suffered from loss of hearing.

This fall, I was even more alarmed to read that President Clinton was in fine health, with one small caveat: he needed two hearing aids. The press statement went on to say that this was not unusual for a man of his age (52) who had listened to loud rock music in his youth. I now await the photos of President Clinton sporting his "age-appropriate" hearing devices...and wonder at my father who is 83 and refuses to wear a hearing aid because (a) it is not the panacea one might hope and (b) hearing aids are for the old and infirm. When did our perception about the appropriate age to expect to loose our hearing change? Or, more aptly put, how have we missed the epidemic proportions of hearing loss in our society?

Ironically, rock musicians are at the forefront of those noticing the need to address the hearing crisis. H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers) is a non-profit organization "dedicated to raising awareness of the real dangers of repeated exposure to excessive noise levels which can lead to permanent, and sometimes debilitating, hearing loss and tinnitus". (Tinnitus is a persistent ringing, buzzing, or hissing sound in the ear.) Many rock musicians who make their living by turning up the volume night after night have suffered from acute hearing problems. As parents of young people, all of whom have earphones and speakers capable of permanently damaging their hearing for life, what can we do to keep our children from being labeled as "uncool geeks"? And, more important, when do we know that "loud" is too loud and when is an unacceptable decibel level purely subjective, or can one determine what decibel level over what period of time will cause hearing damage?

kids enjoying a rock concert

Rock concerts at full tilt can spike to 150 dB!

The United States Safety and Health Standards state that no worker should be exposed to 90 dB of noise over an eight hour period. With each increase of 5 dB, the amount of time exposed to this noise level is divided in half. In other words, a rock concert where the dB level is at 120 dB will cause hearing damage after one and one half hours. Rock concerts at full tilt can spike to 150 dB! A disk jockey can deliver this magnitude of sound, as can your teen party band. As health aware parents, we should have the courage to ask these professionals to turn down the volume. People are just beginning to become aware of the permanent damage that may be inflicted upon our youth. When we have control, we should exert it. If there is a question, we should ask the school to invest in a sound level meter or contribute one to the school. The cost of less than $150 would be less than the cost of several visits to an audiologist to discover that one's child had permanently damaged hearing.

I am asked about headsets and earphones. After all, the Sony Walkman arrived just after the Beatles. Actually, earphones are not damaging to the ear if one listens at a normal volume. If one cranks up the sound when in a noisy environment, such as on an airplane, one may be damaging one's ears. Younger children often do not know how to adjust their earphones and turn down the volume and then really listen. If you as a parent can hear the sound coming out of your child's headset, you should put on the earphones and adjust them for him or her.

"Earphones are not damaging to the ear if one listens at a normal volume."

mother and daughter listening to classical music at a normal volume with ear buds

What if your child refuses to either turn down the music or give up his or her tickets to the next rock concert?

What if your child plays in a rock band? Is there any hope for his or her hearing? Yes. Every child should have at least one set of earplugs. Simple drugstore earplugs will help. For a young person who plays in a rock band, one should consider a pair of custom made earplugs from an audiologist. (They are no where as expensive as a pair of glasses.) In the dark of a concert hall, most kids will put in the earplugs, because the music is literally deafening. The ringing in their ears for several hours after the show, over time, may never go away. Parents should alert their children to the dangers of excessive decibel levels.

Even symphony musicians realize that they live in a world where they may loose their most vital asset, their hearing.

Sound baffles (they look like Plexiglas music stands) are now placed between the sections of symphony orchestras. Most brass players always practice with earplugs in and definitely teach with them on. They save their full-range hearing for concerts and rehearsals only.

Turn down the volume, and if you can't, plug the ears! Remember, while the pediatrician carefully looked for signs of hearing impairment in your child as a pre-schooler and checked his hearing as a youngster, a child with perfectly normal hearing at age ten can totally destroy it by age eighteen. Until there is a problem, we rarely visit an audiologist. Unfortunately, by the time there is one, usually, there is little that can be done to reverse the situation.

If your teenager thinks you are crazy, have him or her log onto the web at and discover how many rock musicians now play with earplugs and how many support H.E.A.R. You may be part of the new generation who understands that, like safe sex, listening to loud music also requires protection.

Bonnie Ward Simon

Bonnie Ward Simon, BA, MA, M.Ed, M.Phil.,

President of Maestro Classics

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