Musicians as performing artists can be thought of as a “small muscle athlete”, and are just as susceptible to injuries as a football player or a construction worker. As performing artists, musicians’ hearing is at risk for damages. When you consider the amount of practice time, and the listening time that a musician has to do, his/her ears often reflect the same sort of damage as might be seen with industrial noise exposure. (Marshall Chasin, AuD, Hearing Loss in Musicians, 1996)
Flutes and piccolos have decibel ranges (intensities) of 85 dB -111dB and 95 dB - 112 dB respectively. The flute has a frequency (pitch) range of three octaves, from C, (middle C, 262 Hz) to C7 (2096 Hz). The frequency (pitch) range of a piccolo is 587 Hz-4.2 kHz.
Sounds above 85 db are harmful for the outer hair cells in the cochlear depending on how long and how often you are exposed to them and whether you wear hearing protection (source: healthlinkBC). Therefore, flutes and especially the piccolos are beyond the healthy decibel range.
Beyond noise exposure, additionally they are problems with pitch perception and tinnitus, which can be quite disabling for a working musician.
Since musicians have to work in and produce music that is often louder than safe noise levels (85dB), musicians need ear protection. However when musicians wear regular hearing protection devices (HPDs), the yellow foam, green foam or any silicone ear plugs, he/she cannot hear the softer sounds, or the harmonics and quite often the musical overtones and the whole sound quality is thrown off balance.
There are several over the counter filtered ear plugs on the market such as
Etymotic Research ER20 High-Fidelity Earplugs, Blue Tip with Clear Stem, 1 Pair Standard Fit, Clamshell Packaging by Etymotic Research that is better for both blocking noise and still allowing you to understand conversation and hear those high notes without hurting your ears.
The best type of filtered ear plugs are custom made musician ear plugs with filters. An audiologist has to take an ear impression of your ears including the ear canal and this is sent off to the lab for a custom fit. There are several filter strengths to choose from.
Whatever type of filtered earplugs you decide to get make sure that they fit properly so that you get the best benefit from using them.
Protect your precious hearing; have your hearing tested annually and use ear plugs every time you play a music instrument.
Dr. Althea Rhoden Grey
Board Certified Audiologist