Earbuds Are Not Your Buddies

Earbuds Are Not Your Buddies

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In the 1960s young people listened to music on hand-held, highly portable transistor radios. (I was one of those people.)

annette funicello with radio

In the 1970s young people listened to music on shoulder-carried, not-nearly-as-portable boom boxes—often to the dismay of the not-so-young people around them. (I was one of those people.)

ghetto_blaster

In both of these situations, the music came out of a speaker, went into the air, and eventually reached the ear of the listener. Or at least most of it did; some of it went elsewhere. (See the second sentence above.)

Ah, but then came the “personal listening” revolution of the 1980s, ushered in by the advent of the iconic Sony Walkman. This small, portable cassette player (remember those?) made it possible for the listener to enjoy his or her music without disturbing anyone nearby—through the use of headphones. Some of those headphones were fairly high-tech closed-cup models; others were low-cost foam-covered mini-speakers mounted on either side of a simple metal headband.

walkman_3016597b

Of course, people had been listening to music on headphones for years…connected to their home stereo systems. But the Walkman created a total paradigm shift when it came to music listening. Because music now could go anywhere, people began to believe first that it should, and later that it must. Especially young people, who essentially got to the point where they’d sooner leave home without their pants than without their Walkman and headphones.

The situation got more intense in the ’90s with the introduction of the mp3 player, followed by the Ipod in the 2000s. Downloadable music, personal playlists, and pocket-sized portability now made personal music listening an indispensable element of life for darn near everybody. And with those digital devices came a new accessory: earbuds. Gone were the headphones that let some of the music (gasp!) leak out. Now all of the sound could be projected directly into the listener’s ears. There would be no escape!

WomanWithMP3

And, of course, today we have the ultimate result of all this “progress,” which is the iphone. Now, besides music, people can listen to (as well as watch) their favorite movies, listen to (as well as play) their favorite games, and even (although it may seem sort of old-school) actually listen to someone speaking on a phone call. It’s gotten to the point where folks are on their phones more than off of them. And all of this sound goes directly into their ears via earbuds.

shower

Scientists have known for years that repeated exposure to loud noise can cause hearing loss. But when most people think of “loud noise,” they think of jet engines… grinding machinery… Marshall stacks. What they don’t realize—and what a New York Daily News article published this past May reported—is that constant exposure to sound via earbuds, even at low volumes, can cause as much, if not more, damage. And that damage is permanent.

To quote that article, “Sound waves travel through the middle ear into the cochlea of the inner ear, where they stimulate hair cells. The organ of Corti, inside the cochlea, transforms the physical motion of the hair cells into electronic pulses for the brain.

detail-inner-ear-diagram

“For decades, scientists have looked, almost exclusively, at the loss of hair cells as an indicator of hearing loss. Researchers at Harvard Medical School’s Eaton Peabody Laboratory learned you can lose up to 90% of your cochlear nerve fibers without losing the ability to detect a tone in quiet. But once background noise is introduced, hearing ability drops dramatically. Hair cells may be completely intact but hearing still lost if the nerve synapses are damaged.

“Earbud headphones deliver stronger, more damaging waves straight to the cochlea—even at lower volumes.” The result of those damaging waves is cochlear nerve damage, which has no known treatment.

The Daily News article goes on to quote Dr. Charles Liberman, director of the Eaton Peabody Lab, who said in their study, “A nerve fiber will never reconnect. It no longer responds to sound, and, within a few months or years, the rest of the neuron will disappear.”

Okay, now it’s back to me talking. I’m a poster child for the prevention of hearing damage, since my more than fifty years of drumming and playing in loud bands has left me with a significant hearing loss. I wear hearing aids these days as the result of that loss. It saddens me to think that anyone, musician or not, could unknowingly be creating this same situation for themselves in a much shorter time, simply by doing what has become an almost universal—and constant—daily activity.

I can’t begin to accurately describe what it’s like to have impaired hearing, and how much it adversely affects one’s quality of life. But I can suggest a little exercise to give you at least a slight idea. Get a pair of the squishy foam earplugs that are available in any drugstore. Then find a pair of over-the-ear headphones. (Don’t worry; you’re not going to plug them in to anything.)

Foam Earplugs

Put the plugs in your ears, and put the headphones on over them. Now attempt to spend a “normal” day…or even a few hours…while trying to understand what people say to you, or watch a television program, or (ironically) hear a telephone ring. I’m confident that you’ll be shocked at how difficult it is just to get through these activities.

So what’s the solution? Well, there are several, which can (and should) be employed in combination. First, get off the damn phone! And that doesn’t mean just phone calls, but time spent listening to music or any other source of sound. Give your ears a rest.

Second, trash the earbuds and instead go back to using over-the-ear headphones. (Consider them a “retro” fashion statement.) And third, when you do listen to anything, drop the volume and limit the length of time. Experts suggest a 60/60 rule: no more than 60% volume and no more than 60 minutes of sustained listening.

Till next time: Remember that “happy listening” also includes enjoying some occasional silence.

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