Questions about ear plugs

August 1, 2023, 12:26 AM · I recently had an exam by an audiologist and the results were that 1) I have some significant hearing loss on my right ear and 2) on my left ear there is only some minor loss of high frequencies, compatible with my age. I have only one truly functioning ear left and it occurred to me that it was time to start practicing with ear plugs. I'd like to ask a few questions that have occurred to me in this context:

I ordered a set and today I practiced for the first time with ear plugs. The first thing I noticed that I hear myself breathing much louder than without plugs. Its this a generally experienced thing or do I do something wrong?

The second thing I noticed was that my violin sounded softer than I am used to (I expected that of course) but marvelous. No bowing noises, just a warm, smooth tone, pretty much on all 4 strings, very Mozartian. I'll have to be careful not to believe that this is how it really sounds when I play! Again, do other people have a similar experience?

Finally I'd like to hear tips on how to practice/play with the pugs in from people with experience.

Replies (39)

August 1, 2023, 6:21 AM · There are many types of ear plugs. There are models that filter in a more faithful way, letting more definition in your sound, other that filter more high frequencies. It's not bad if you gather your own experience, so to decide what you like more.
What earplugs did you get, now?

Hearing your own breath is uneliminable when wearing plugs, as far as i saw. But after a while you'll get used to it and won't notice any more. It happened to me.

For myself: when i practice some ripetitive and louds exercises, at the beginning of a stydy session, i wear a plug only in my left ear.

Edited: August 1, 2023, 6:35 AM · Albrecht - I wonder if your audiologist is of the opinion that the violin under your left ear actually constitutes a danger to your hearing? I'm agnostic on that point although when it was last tested at least 15 years ago it was my left ear that showed the greater reduction of HF sensitivity. I'm still not consciously aware of any problem but maybe I don't practise enough.
Edited: August 1, 2023, 6:49 AM · My left ear is the one that has developed tinnitus during the last year.

I now practise, in the other half's box room, with Pacatos in both ears. I've got some Etymotics, but I find them too uncomfortable. That's the only tip I can offer.

Edited: August 1, 2023, 7:23 AM · I routinely practice with earplugs (I use the Alpine musician earplugs) since a few years. Yes, of course, the sound of your violin is softer (that's the whole point of earplugs, right?) and yes it is also normal that "internal" noises from your body, like breathing, become more noticeable. There are no special tips needed I think. Just do it. I believe (and I've also seen others claim this) that practicing with earplugs actually improves your sound. Since you hear the violin softer, you will work more on producing a big sound, and you will be less scared by the "zjit" sounds that are produced close to the violin when using your bow closer to the max, but that are not heard by the audience anyway. One tip I can give you is, after your practice session, do play for a few minutes without the earplugs, just to experience reality. All the best!
August 1, 2023, 7:26 AM · I have used foam disposable 33 decibel noise reduction earplugs for years while playing violin as well as the major part of the work day. It might take you several weeks to several months before you become accustomed to them. Some people might possibly be prone to using more bow pressure at first as they immediately cut out the scratch. Although most people are going to suffer minor hearing loss in the ageing process think it extremely beneficial to preventing some of it.
August 1, 2023, 7:50 AM · I have had tinnitus for at least twenty years, it doesn't automatically lead to deafness, as some think. In saying that it is wise to protect against hearing loss, if the idea is just to reduce volume without wanting to hear your own breathing why not use a mute, or if you can practice outside which disperses the sound
August 1, 2023, 8:38 AM · When I play, I use filtered ear plugs that my audiologist prescribed a couple of years ago when she discovered that I had significant hearing loss in both ears starting at about 1800 Hz. I agree with Albrecht's feeling that the tone is softer with the plugs I have. It sounds to me as if I am playing with a mute. Also, in my orch, I have some trouble hearing some of the other sections. However, I do want to protect what is left of my hearing, particularly at frequencies below 1800 Hz. I use hearing aids when I am not playing music.
August 1, 2023, 9:27 AM · I will add a couple of things:

i normally use Alpine or Etymotic generic plugs. 25 years ago i had a pair of custom molded plugs made for my ear canals, and in the end i can't stand to use them: because i want to be able to partially pull out a bit, sometimes (sometimes more, sometimes not) the plug so that i can't decide what they filter or not.

So, choosing some plugs that you can "modulate" a bit, by inserting totally or not into the ear, is an advantage that can be explored, in my opinion.

August 1, 2023, 9:56 AM · You will find better and worse examples, but if you only want to cut volume there are inexpensive foam ones in jars at the drug store. Better than nothing.
August 1, 2023, 10:11 AM · One thing I forgot to add about my plugs at least is that it can be a bit difficult to precisely calibrate how loudly or softly you are playing. With the ear plugs in, you cannot hear the kinds of subtle differences that hearing without them provides.
August 1, 2023, 10:23 AM · I agree that the foam ones are probably ok, being a Hifi cynic.
But 33db might tempt you to play too loud all the time.
August 1, 2023, 10:48 AM · to answer Ron Black's question "why not use a mute": because a mute also mutes the bow, so to speak. the bow is much less bouncy when you have a mute on the bridge, at least in my experience. so, practicing with a mute all the time is not so effective, or may even lead you astray, as in performance you're going to play without the mute so the bow will behave differently (less easier to control).
August 1, 2023, 10:55 AM · Otoh, Yehudi Menuhin always practised with a mute.
Edited: August 1, 2023, 11:14 AM · I practice with ear plugs (custom molded with 9 dB filters). There are for sure some drawbacks, and I wouldn't perform with them, and I don't wear them for lessons, but I see the experience as one that perhaps gives me a greater clue as to what the audience might hear, so I try and use it to prod me to seek a bigger and deeper sound, and exactly show me that the more "live" surface sounds aren't likely to make their way out to the listener.

I think about kids starting on violin, whose ears are pretty sensitive, and I wonder if part of what keeps them from digging in for a bigger sound is the feedback of just how loud the violin is under the ear. Of course, not all kids are the same, but I think it may have been the case for me where I never wanted a big sound, because my ears were always pretty sensitive.

August 1, 2023, 11:30 AM · Thanks for all your answers.
My plugs are from Hearprotec; they seem to be about mid price range among musician's earplugs. They claim to reduce sound by 23 Db. They are from silicon and have a "filter" in them ("filter" is an odd word for this, isn't it?). They seem to compress the dynamic range of the instrument (has maybe something to do with the fact that the Db scale is logarithmic).
I found playing with them very pleasant actually (makes me not trust them entirely), far more pleasant than a practice mute. Rosin noise is completely suppressed and the sound is far more full than with even a regular mute. This seems to direct more attention to the intonation which would not be a bad thing.
Steve, at this point this is just an "abundance of caution" kind of thing; I would like to keep my hearing at its present level. My left ear is quite ok for someone my age at this point (especially someone who plays the violin); it is my right ear that has a problem; the violin is not the cause of it (I had at least two infections in my right ear and there is a "crater" somewhere in the ear canal that was apparently the entry point of those infections. The right ear also has a tinnitus which comes and goes at its own pleasure (nothing very irritating, just a swishy noise).
August 1, 2023, 12:06 PM · I got into this "area" almost 40 years ago when I realized I was starting to have hearing problems.

Checking back on line I find that I made entries on the subject and ear plugs at (Pegbox) as long ago as 1998.

I first noticed the problem when tuning my violin (to the oboe) in community orchestra around 1985. I could not get a perfect match. A friend who had had a career as a tone-master recording engineer told me that loud sounds would overdrive our hearing and cause uss to hear pitch as sharper than it actually was. I plugged me left ear and my pitch discrimination problem disappeared. So from then on I used the ear plug whenever I played the violin. I tried an experiment on ALL the violinists in our community orchestra giving each one one ear plug for their left ears. "Voila" the intonation of the violin sections improved immediately.

I used only the cheap waxy ear plugs sold in drug stores and adjusted the depth in my ear so that the apparent volume of sound was balanced in both my ears. (I estimated that the attenuation needed in my left ear (assuming equal sensitivity in both ears) was between 12 and 18 DB.) I could adjust the level of attenuation.

Over the next 30 years I graduated to various levels of hearing assistance and have been using professional hearing aids in both ears for the past 8 years. When I first got them they made my violins sound to me like "a million bucks." (I bought my hearing aids at CostCo, which is now recommended by Consumer Reports. I would be "legally deaf" without them - if there is such a thing!)

Many, many, many years ago I played with a mute and experienced the same sweet tone and easy pitch recognition described above. But this is not what your instrument sounds like and you are not getting "honest" feedback when you practice that way. When we lived in a New York apartment in the 1940s my father had to practice with a heavy practice mute on his Scarampella when a neighbor told him "if he didn't shut up that damned fiddle" he'd kill him. In 1947 we moved to the countryside of central Maryland into a house in the middle of 27 acres - no more practice mute!

August 1, 2023, 3:25 PM · As for using mutes, we all have different weaknesses to overcome. I find that a mute is useful for making the violin a little less anxious to speak. So it requires a little more presence in the string, and it's also more obvious when there is a gap in legato or a missing small note. Sort of like Demosthenes learning to speak more clearly by filling his mouth with pebbles. YMMV.
Edited: August 1, 2023, 3:44 PM · I just use an old wine cork...

Andrew Victor wrote, "I tried an experiment on ALL the violinists in our community orchestra giving each one one ear plug for their left ears. Voila, the intonation of the violin sections improved immediately."

That is a really interesting idea.

August 1, 2023, 7:09 PM · I always prefer playing with a mute over ear plugs. That said, I actually usually like to practice with my electric, unplugged.

The best (highest fidelity) earplugs I've found you can make out of paper towel. You ball up a little piece of paper towel and put it in your ear. Then, drip a few drops of water on it with the (wetted) end of your finger. More water, more attenuation. The most realistic sound I've found with plugs.

If you want to get fancy, and expensive, use in-ear monitors. Mike yourself up with a good mike, then adjust the desired volume level in the IEMs. IEMs that give you at least a decent amount of fidelity generally run hundreds of dollars, plus the mike and associated equipment.

August 1, 2023, 7:27 PM · I recall hearing a recording of French violinist Jacques Thibaud in a string quartet in which he definitely played flat as he got to higher notes. That is what happens if you are overdriving your ears.
Edited: August 2, 2023, 2:12 AM · I'm a bit surprised that so many of us here (almost all amateurs it seems) feel the need to play with earplugs or a mute. Isn't practising with earplugs a bit like going round indoors wearing sunshades? How do you cope with the increased volume and brightness when you take them out to play chamber music or with a pianist? For me music is all about sound and I want to experience its full intensity and richness, whether it be in orchestras, string quartets or on my own.
Edited: August 2, 2023, 3:27 AM · Gordon: so perhaps we have finally discovered the reason for Menuhin's infamous bowing problems during performances :-)

Steve: you are right of course, but, on the other hand, the violin is such a loud instrument (if you bow it well) that it is so very bad for your ears, and especially the left ear. This is widely known, just google [violin ear damage].

August 2, 2023, 4:14 AM · Musicians' earplugs are not hermetic: they enable us to hear our instruments as others hear us. And we keep a least the left plug in when practicing and often both in orchestral or chamber music.
A violin produces up to near 100dB measured just by the ear, and for hours daily...
Edited: August 2, 2023, 4:26 AM · Jean - as far as I can judge after subjecting the information offered on the internet to my fine-meshed credulity filter, the medical evidence for violin-related hearing loss does appear to be good. As regards its prevalence and severity ("so very bad"?) I'd be interested to see the results of large population studies. Are students routinely warned of this and advised to wear earplugs? Have any prominent pedagogues or soloists expressed an opinion? I get the feeling it's regarded in the same light as sports injuries that are considered inseparable and acceptable risks of the game.

Adrian - I don't believe others hear me like I hear myself when playing with a mute ("muted" isn't a term generally used as a compliment), or with one ear plugged which completely alters our perception of the acoustical environment.

August 2, 2023, 4:39 AM · Steve you are right, while well known, the ear damage is also something of a taboo among professional violinist, it seems. Not sure such large population studies have ever been done.
August 2, 2023, 11:32 AM · Steve, I have one ear diminished for reasons most likely unrelated to the violin. At this point I want to do what I can to keep my other ear intact, especially since it is the one threatened ("threatened") by the violin. It is maybe understandable that I do not wait for a large population study.

I find the sound of my instrument with ear plugs superior to its sound with a mute, not to mention a practice mute. I tried that and I hated it. There is also the point that somebody already made: That a mute changes the mechanics if only slightly whereas the plug leaves the violin in full playing order.

Edited: August 2, 2023, 11:44 AM · BTW, Steve, the audiologist does think the violin a threat. I don't think that means much though, it seems that medical professionals tend to be a little too gullible about studies. A good portion of standard diet advice for example is probably not supported by sound evidence. However, once the horses are gone closing the barn door won't do any good.
Edited: August 5, 2023, 5:41 AM · Steve, I don't want the deadening effect of a mute or an industrial worker's earplug; a musicians' plug reduces the sound level without altering the timbre, except a slight lessening of the more aggressive frequencies. Thus the sound seems further away, rather than muffled.

And remember that the 100dB under the ear when practicing is concentrated in one note at a time, rather than a spread of frequencies. Enough to drill holes in the cochlea? 5 minutes maximum per session?

Jean, indeed my violinist friends quickly change the subject to parisian rents, or the Price pf lobster..

August 2, 2023, 2:38 PM · Hey Steve!!!
I have advanced loss in both my ears and have been using Etymotic ear plugs for a while now.
I think they work fine and in my experience, have no ill effects on my tone.

I truly resisted wearing them until this past year while attending a concert here in town that I noticed a lot of the string and brass players wearing them for a performance.

August 2, 2023, 2:42 PM · I wear earplugs because my ears get overdriven pretty easily, so sound can start to distort and get a harsh static to it. The earplugs prevent this. My hearing loss actually isn't so bad, and probably comes from a combination of genetics, playing, and a few unfortunate choices to go stand next to the speakers at some shows. The tinnitus that showed up a few years ago was a warning, but I'm hoping to put off going deaf if I can for as long as I can, since my father started going deaf in his 60s.

This could be the opposite-of-rose-colored glasses I'm wearing, but I really believe that us millenials, as a cohort, are going to lose our hearing at much earlier ages than before, mostly due to how much louder everywhere has gotten.

August 2, 2023, 5:31 PM · I've been using Westone custom molded plugs for years now for attending concerts, loud noise at work and even Home Depot. Any loud place that aggravates my tinnitus. You can get them from most audiologists. I searched high and low for a quiet violin, but can't find anything that is quiet enough unless muted or electric turned down low. I agree with the original poster - all these sound dampening devices make you sound a lot better than the naked fiddle.
August 3, 2023, 1:40 AM · @Douglas - I like the idea of a naked fiddle! Getting it to sound good is what gives me the most satisfaction from playing. And after a short-form medical review and risk assessment (no complaints after 60 years playing and listening at loud volumes, mild asymptomatic HF loss on audiometry, no family history of deafness) I'm metaphorically keeping my head in the sand!
August 3, 2023, 3:05 AM · I find "silent" violins perfectly playable and ok to listen to even when they are not plugged into anything, amp or phones.
August 3, 2023, 3:43 AM · Gordon - I have a Yev-104 that hangs silently on the wall. Might as well be playing a solid lump of wood.
August 3, 2023, 4:38 AM · I have a Hidersine HEV1.
Edited: August 4, 2023, 4:55 AM · We are not equal regarding ear-toughness! Our inborn protection depends on the three tiny bones in each middle ear, two of which are held by tiny muscles. These stiffen (too late) in reaction to sudden noises, but also in anticipation of our own noises. They are less active during a hangover...
August 4, 2023, 11:59 AM · Are you suggesting alcohol to prepare your ears for the ordeal of listening to a violin?
August 5, 2023, 8:04 AM · Yes: if we're playing fiddle in a pub, the public should be several pints ahead of the fiddler!
August 31, 2023, 7:07 PM · Greetings all, I use earplugs called LifeMusic. They are wonderful.

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