Can you hear me now?

April 16, 2008 at 02:29 AM · Most of you know that I am a mother of a violin student. I do play piccolo/flute in a couple of orchestras in which I always use hearing protection when playing piccolo and I have just started wearing it for flute as well. Sometimes I even offer it to the pour 2nd violin who has to sit next to me :)

When I asked the piccolo player of my daughters youth symphony if she wore hearing protection she said "No,.. I wonder if that is why I can't hear well out my right ear." ::sigh::

I have often asked violin students at the University where my daughter takes lessons, if they use protection and some of them have even mention loss of hearing.

I would think with the F holes close to your ear that it would take a toll?

What kind, if any, protection do you use and what works well for you?


Replies (23)

April 16, 2008 at 03:29 AM · I have heard at least one doctor talk about "violin ear", referring to a slight loss of hearing he'd seen in the left ears of people who played violin. He wasn't joking either, but insisted that it wasn't much of a big deal all the same. I try not to play the violin in small, obnoxiously loud rooms, but other than that, I don't worry too much.

Piccolo ear though... one has to wonder what that instrument does to hearing. When I'm near a loud instrument like the piccolo, I sometimes (actually almost always) use one of those tan foam rubber ear plugs, cut in half, to attenuate the high frequency sound but not interefere with my ability to hear myself. Usually you can get away with just one in the ear closest to the piccolo (or whatever) but I've been known to put one in each ear if I'm in front of something really nasty like a bunch of trumpets or even canons in the 1812 overture! Anyway, this is probably just a poor man's solution- I bet you there are high tech solutions now involving special materials and custom made ear plugs or something along those lines.

The bottom line is that hearing loss is cumulative, so musicians do need to pay attention to this, since we are exposed so much loud noise as part of our profession. However, my trumpet playing friends can still hear me talking after twenty and thirty years of playing, so don't panic.

April 16, 2008 at 03:45 AM · Oh, about those 1812 overture canons, I was the only violinist wearing any hearing protection at all, and my friends in the section were actually laughing at me a little, until the canons went off. The shock wave was so intense that it actually knocked some stands down and blew the music off of some others! So I was glad I was wearing those ear plugs...

April 16, 2008 at 12:46 PM · I know players wearing specialized plugs during rehearsals. I suspect also during concerts. Somehow the new techy ones let you hear what you need to but protect the workings of the ear. I have put in foam plugs at loud dances, and wished for them at loud jams, so I guess I should add a couple sets of disposables to each case. I've forgotten the name of the special ones. They are not inexpensive, but I wonder if a doctor would prescribe them, so they could be a medical deduction, or otherwise, they could be a business expense for teachers/performers. (Oh,yeah- tax day yesterday has raised my attention at least for a bit.) Sue

April 16, 2008 at 01:33 PM · I put little foam plugs on my young kids when they do loud bowing, like martele.

April 16, 2008 at 05:10 PM · Etymotic Research sells kid and regular earplugs for about $15 that bring down the decibels about 20 but do not muffle the sound. Worth a look!

April 17, 2008 at 03:26 AM · Hearing damage is permanent and irreversible. You should do everything you can to avoid it. You are never too young or too old to protect your ears.

As someone who wears hearing aids and has sensorineural hearing loss, this is a subject that has special importance to me.

Hearing loss is not merely a matter of everything sounding quieter. It brings with it tinnitus, or ringing in the ears; and in more severe cases it causes recruitment, where sounds become loud and fuzzy.

Like hearing loss, tinnitus can only get worse with time. You may spontaneously experience ringing even if you have not been around any loud sounds, eventually getting to the point where you hear the ringing all the time.

A less well-known side effect of hearing loss is "recruitment." You lose the ability to distinguish between different pitches because a sound at one pitch will simultaneously trigger you to hear nearby pitches as well. You can imagine how this would be bad for your intonation! The more advanced the recruitment, the wider the range of additional pitches that get recruited into each thing you hear. Not only that, but because the sound is also "heard" simultaneously as other pitches, things actually become louder, but in a bad way. With severe recruitment, if you can hear something in your damaged range at all, it will sound very loud and very incoherent to you.

Canada has occupational health and safety limits for the maximum allowed exposure to noise at different levels. The most stringent jurisdictions have a limit of 8 hours a day at 85 dB(A), with the time cut in half for every additional 3 dB, for a maximum of 1 hour exposure a day at 94 dB. The least stringent is 90 dBA for 8 hours, with a 5 dB exchange rate, meaning a max of 1 hour at 105 dB.

I brought my violin to an appointment with my audiologist and asked to use a decibel meter to measure the loudness of my bowing on open strings. Without a mute, it rated 85 to 99 dB. With a rubber practice mute, the volume was 82 to 86 dB. This was just a few weeks after I started learning the violin, so I am sure that I can be even louder now.

If you ever get temporary hearing loss or a ringing sound in your ears after a performance or practice session, then it was loud enough to cause long-term hearing damage and indicates that you should have had ear protection.

My own practice volume exceeds the listed limits for workplace safety, so I usually practice with a mute and/or with my hearing aids turned down or off.

But a mute is really only helpful for solo practice. For everything else--performances and ensemble practice--you'd need earplugs.

In previous threads on hearing concerns, people had mentioned musicians' earplugs. These earplugs have standard noise reduction ratings of 9, 15, or 25 dB. They work better than normal foam earplugs because they have a more uniform noise reduction across all frequencies. An audiologist can fit you with musicians' earplugs with a custom mold of your ear. You can also get non-custom-fitted plugs, but if you are going to be playing music for hours at a time, a custom fit will probably work better for you.

If you regularly play ensemble music, even if it's a small ensemble like a quartet, I would strongly recommend using earplugs, musician ear plugs if you can get them.


April 17, 2008 at 04:01 AM · I use foam plugs for many different occasions:

-Amplified concerts, especially rock-type.

-Pit work. Those enclosed walls...


-Some practicing.

When I do mirror work, getting the bow parallel to the bridge, I have to swing my head to the left, placing my left ear right in line with the f-hole. It is excruciating, so I plug for that.

I am also not a big fan of headphones. I don't use them, or ear buds. From what I understand, having that sound go directly into your eardrum is really damaging.

Also, young students can be particularly sensitive to full-throttle violin. When I demonstrate in a lesson, I take care to use more sotto voce.

April 17, 2008 at 04:25 PM · Oh!This is news to me, I didn't know. Back few year ago, my son's violin teacher complain that my son didn't play his piece loud enough while my son complain it hurting his ear. And his teacher said it probably he can't play intune. But he did play in tune, while he play his peace. But his teacher still think it is bad idea.Said that way he won't experience the quality of the sounds, and he probably would not learn about the beautiful of the sound of the violin.

So, I wonder how I manage that? Should I bring this up to the teacher? Or should I just go out and buy him new pair ear protection plug?

It is good to know, I have no intention to have them losing their hearing over the violin playing.

April 17, 2008 at 06:54 PM · I'm currently using those std foam plugs from Walgreens. I've searched ard (from suggestions above), found some "musicians earplugs" , or "High Fidelity" earplugs that reduce the sound by 20dB, with no distortion. I might invest in a couple of pairs (hopefully the kids dont lose them too soon). With the teachers' emphasis on sound projection, I think it is better to be safe than sorry.

April 18, 2008 at 07:42 AM · I've just got myself a pair of musicians ear plugs rated at 15dB. They'll be great for my orchestral stuff, but I found that they reduced it a bit too much for my personal practice. I don't want to get them reduced to 9db because i'll need the 15dB for the orchestral stuff, and it's a bit too expensive to grab two pairs at the same time.

Sydney brought up some good points about the decibel ratings (though I had heard the violin rated between 70-90dB). It means we're generally safe if our practice is the only thing we do (so long as we don't exceed 8 hours), but when we add in extra things like orchestra, chamber groups, or going to a concert, it reduced the amount of time that we can be exposed.

What I plan to do is when I've only got practice for the day (no ensembles), then I won't use protection, because I need to hear the finer details just under my ear. However, when I have chamber music, or orchestra rehearsals, I'll wear the plugs all day.

Protect your hearing, because you can't get it back. I had a quick test when I had my ear plugs fitted, and it showed that I had already some hearing loss in the upper frequencies - still within the acceptable range, but any more and it's classed as hearing loss. I'm only 22 - so basically, I'm afraid for those who are older than me and have never had it checked or worn protection.

April 18, 2008 at 01:36 PM · I've been doing pit work this week, and it has been interesting sitting right next to the oboe/English horn player. He is a wonderful player, in tune, with a clear, pretty sound, but WOW is it loud! His horn is about 3 feet from my left ear. If you play a lot of second violin, you develop a knee-jerk flinching reaction to piccolo, but I would be curious to know the decibel level of oboe. And yes, the plugs are in both ears for this show.

As for young children and loud violin, I remember when I started 3rd position and double stops, the sounds were painful to me. The overtones of the thirds were especially teeth-rattling. And I loathed the high E string notes. I am not sure if I was overly sensitive, but I did get used to it. But I was an older student, and I was on a full sized violin almost right away.

I guess one of the few advantages of fractional sized violins are that they usually are not so loud. I let the younger ear-sensitive students play on the soft side. I have also noticed that the students that have perfect pitch (like me) are the most noise sensitive. Has anyone else noticed this correlation?

April 18, 2008 at 03:05 PM · My concern is that kids that start really young get used to such loud sounds (like teenagers using head phones listening to loud music), and that loud = projection = good, that they dont think the ear hurting is an alarm anymore. Because sometimes when my kid play really loud, I asked him if his ears hurt, he says no.

April 18, 2008 at 06:43 PM · Michelle Chang said,

"Back few year ago, my son's violin teacher complain that my son didn't play his piece loud enough while my son complain it hurting his ear."

"So, I wonder how I manage that? Should I bring this up to the teacher? Or should I just go out and buy him new pair ear protection plug?"

I think that playing loudly gives you a feel for right-hand technique that you would not get otherwise.

I don't want to come across as stating the obvious, but you didn't say if you played an instrument yourself, so I can't be sure if you've noticed the following...

If you play quietly without having the volume reduced, it does not sound the same as if you play loudly but with the volume reduced, even if the perceived volume is the same.

While playing loudly, the sound quality is different. This is related to what your son's teacher said about learning about the beautiful sound of the violin.

A teacher might justifiably object to using ordinary foam earplugs because they dampen different pitches by different amounts.

But I don't think a teacher would object to using good musicians' ear plugs to practice, because they would have an even sound reduction.

So I think it's possible to satisfy your health concerns while still satisfying the teacher's learning concerns.

However, I also see that getting custom-fit musicians' earplugs would be a bit expensive for children who would grow out of them or possibly lose them.

If there are no other options, I like what Anne said about allowing the sensitive young ones to play softly. I would gladly sacrifice speed of learning for long-term health.

I consider open communication important, so regardless of what you choose to do, if I were you, I would chat with the teacher.

April 20, 2008 at 04:46 AM · My violin is extremely loud, and I am a very powerful player on top of it! I put a cotton ball in my left ear when I am practicing. I also have a few of my louder students do this as well. It is imperative to still be able to hear the resonance from the violin for proper intonation. Cotton balls are a good alternative to ear plugs as they won't plug the ear entirely and are considerably less expensive. Mutes for the violin should not be used on a regular basis either as they mask the ring of the note. Many players have trouble hearing whether they are playing in tune or not when a mute is on.

April 20, 2008 at 05:08 AM · A timely article from the NY Times about musicians and noise levels:

April 29, 2008 at 05:21 PM · Just an update. I've bought a pair of ER Hi fidelity ear plugs for small ear canals. It is meant for people with smaller ear canals and kids. So if you are concerned with your young ones and loud sounds, it's called ER Baby Blues Earplugs. It's avail through Amazon as well.

May 1, 2008 at 02:39 AM · Sydney, you were right about I donot play the violin. And I do have talked to the teacher about my concern. And her response is -- Don't be silly, I am almost seventy and I haven't lost my hearing. My hearing is better than normal people who do not play violin.

She also told me that my boy do play beautifully but it would be so much better if he could just let his ear justify the volume. He should be fine. She did not lose her hearing over playing violin over sixty years. She disagreed about the ear plugged.

Anyway,I guess just different person has differnt opinion.

But I will still go ahead purchsed one pair ER ear plugs. Thank you!

So it just confused.

May 1, 2008 at 01:29 PM · "I would think with the F holes close to your ear that it would take a toll?"

Just as a FYI, the sound doesn't actually come out of the f-holes. At a conceptual level the entire top generates the sound just like the cone of a speaker vibrates to create sound, moving in and out to create a sound pressure wave. The functional purpose of the holes in a stringed instrument is to allow the top to vibrate freely. Imagine, for example, if the top were solid; the top couldn't vibrate because there would be no where for the air to go.

If you are concerned about hearing loss I recommend getting a sound meter and reading up on the research on safety:

I've used this in the past to do industrial sound design, as relying on your own perception of volume is a bad idea as the ear adjusts to the levels around you. From a hearing perspective I worry much more about the poor people who have work in bars and nightclubs than anyone playing in an orchestra.

Sorry, I'll stop now. :-)

May 1, 2008 at 03:01 PM · michael, i would think "some" sound does come out of the F holes. try tape them and experiment.

re getting earplugs,,,,i think this is one of those things in life that it is better safe than sorry, better being careful than being right in theory. every kid is born with a different level of tolerance and even parents sometimes find out adverse reaction too late. i think my kid would love to get a pair that can block noise from me as well:)

May 1, 2008 at 03:04 PM · "i would think "some" sound does come out of the F holes. try tape them and experiment."

I'd be worried about what taping the F holes might do to the varnish. Maybe you want to get a $15 VSO for such an experiment ;-)

May 1, 2008 at 03:09 PM · oh come on ben, your sweat and other bodily fluids cause much more damage:)

May 1, 2008 at 03:21 PM · "michael, i would think "some" sound does come out of the F holes. try tape them and experiment."

When you tape over the f-holes the violin the top can't vibrate any more since air can't move in and out of the body. :-)

May 1, 2008 at 03:55 PM · i would think michael that when the air is moving out of the body, it brings out beautiful music:)

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