Feb 2018 ABC Online
It was a regular night out for Natalie Pestana — a small rock show at a Melbourne club, like the kind she's been going to once or twice a week for years. "When they finished and put up the house music, I realised just how bad my ears were," Ms Pestana says. "They were ringing. Everything was muffled.” She was disoriented. She couldn't tell what noise was coming from inside her head, and what from without. "I got out onto the street and people were talking and smoking and again my ears were ringing. "I just about nearly cried.” Though it has died down a bit since that night, last January, Ms Pestana, 40, now has a constant ringing in her right ear. "If I put a fan on, for a bit of white noise, then I don't [hear it], which is great," she says. "But sometimes I also have to train my brain to listen for the outside noise versus the ringing that is in my ear."
Since the 1950s and '60s, electric guitars became synonymous with pop music, pumping out grating tones at ever-higher decibels. But concern for the health of music fans' ears has not really matched that trajectory. "There is a lot of work to be done in terms of particular communication of [research] results and how to take care of your ears," says Siobhan McGinnity, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne whose PhD, through the HEARing Cooperative Research Centre, is looking at how to prevent hearing loss in the music industry. "People generally aren't as aware as they should be of the effects of loud music exposure.” Even a short period listening to music at 100 decibels — a standard level for a club gig — can permanently affect your hearing, and increase your chances of developing tinnitus, a ringing or clicking in the ears that never goes away. "It's not just levels, or intensity, or volume, it's also duration," says Dr Elizabeth Beach, senior research psychologist at the National Acoustic Laboratory in Sydney. "So by the time you get up to 100dB, which is a fairly typical level for a gig or a festival performance, then the safe exposure time for that sort of performance is only 15 minutes."For people who go to a few shows a year, the risk is minimal. If you are going to shows more regularly than that, play in bands or work at a bar or as a sound engineer, it's a different story. That feeling you get, after a particularly loud show, of fuzziness or a temporary ringing? That's a sign that damage has occurred. "It's a really slow, incremental process," Dr Beach says, "and people tend not to notice any permanent hearing loss until it is too late".
Siobhan McGinnity, 29, who is completing a PhD on hearing damage in the music industry, suffers from hearing damage
Ms McGinnity is a research scientist, a lecturer in audiology, a PhD candidate, and the founder of the not-for-profit Musicians for Hearing. She also grew up singing and playing piano, and in recent years has released records under the name Magnets. But her knowledge of hearing damage runs deeper. "I hear a constant high-frequency tinnitus — it's a ring that's with me all day, every day," she says. In her early 20s, she went through a patch of going to nightclubs and gigs several nights a week. Then, one day, she was sitting at her desk at work and heard the ringing for the first time. She knew it immediately what it was. "And it hasn't left since.” She describes that initial feeling as "grieving silence”. "It means learning that in quiet, and those periods where you want to relax, silence doesn't exist for you anymore. "Or, it exists but it's changed. That can often be the first step for anyone that hears tinnitus for the first time — [it] is just going through a period of grief and adjustment."
Michael Rae started going to gigs in Sydney in the 1970s. He remembers some great shows from his teenage years: Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel at pubs, Black Sabbath and AC/DC at larger venues like the Hordern Pavilion and Melbourne's Festival Hall. "You put Deep Purple in a tin shed and it's not surprising that you come out with your ears ringing at the end of the night saying, 'Geez, that was good'," the 59-year-old said. He was in his 40s when he started to notice the damage: being unable to hear people in meetings, particularly women whose voices are often in a higher register. "I went, after much cajoling from my wife, to get my hearing checked and sure enough it was that the capacity to hear higher frequencies had been severely damaged," he says.
A high-quality ear bud, which lowers the volume but not the quality
Mr Rae has bought ear plugs for his two teenage sons, both musicians — he wants to spare them the same fate. But not all young people are aware of the risks, experts say. "I've been getting really conscious [of it] and thinking, 'this is probably going to be doing some damage'," says Evie Vlah, 16. She goes to all-ages shows once or twice a week, and plays various venues around Melbourne with her band Jungle Cuffs. She plans to invest in musician-grade ear plugs, which lower the sound level without diminishing its quality.
Having cheap, basic foam ear plugs available at all venues, preferably for free, is an important first step, Ms McGinnity says. Currently not enough venues in Australia offer them. "But then also, what we have shown is when people are aware, they are not necessarily going to change their behaviours because there things like stigma or fear of peer rejection.” We worry about what people will think of us if we wear ear plugs, Ms McGinnity says, and that needs to change.
Ms Pestana and Mr Rae urge younger fans to learn from their experiences. "For people who are going to gigs regularly, and particularly if they are loud bands in confined spaces, you are crazy not to take some sort of hearing protection with you," Mr Rae said. Ms Pestana loves music. She hates to think she has impacted her enjoyment of it. "My recommendation is: don't be as stupid as I was."