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The warnings from hearing "experts" about the potential dangers resulting from iPod's or other personal listening devices have been over-exaggerated. To date there's NO proof that exposure to music, be it classical, rock, or jazz, from using personal listening devices results in hearing loss. The press loves this story, but claiming loud music results in hearing loss has never been scientifically proven.
The foremost experts in audiology who used to warn about the hazzards of listening to loud music have also started to downplay their original position. They now say it's "theoretically possible."
Hearing advocates generally do not like iPod’s or other potentially loud personal listening devices and I can appreciate their concern. But claims these devices CAN and WILL cause hearing loss has no support in scientific literature. In the fifty years since parents have been telling their kids, "You'll go deaf if you listen to that loud rock and roll music," there has been no definitive study in the medical literature linking prolonged exposure to loud music with hearing loss.* In fact, the best and only longitudinal population study involving loud music involved 53 rock musicians over a period of 25 years. They found that as a whole, subjects had hearing levels no different than the regular population. Think about it: these were people who played music loud, far beyond typical exposures times, and showed no difference. Therefore, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it is unjustified to suggest loud music will result in permanent hearing loss.
Audiologists and other hearing experts who continue to warn parents about the hazards of loud music to kids' hearing often generalize the effects of hearing loss associated with occupational noise with listening to music, recreationally or professionally.
However, the difference between occupational noise and music is like "Apples and Oranges:"
As mentioned, experts who claim loud music can and will cause hearing loss often draw their opinions from studies concerned with occupational medicine. In the work environment, exposure to an average of 85dB+ is considered hazardous to hearing, so when one learns that iPod's generate intensities up to 119dB (dBA), it appears hazardous. But the sound sources are very different. Noise generated from machines, air compressor and the like is usually steady state noise, or extremely loud (130dB+) impulse noise. It is inappropriate to extrapolate data from occupational medicine and apply it to exposure to music, without evidence based studies. The noise sources are different. Interestingly, in one Blog about iPod's, it was suggested that exposure to just 12 minutes of loud music at 115dB can cause hearing loss. That is preposterous. Don't believe it.
Noise exposure is measured in terms of “dose”:
When risk of potential noise induced hearing loss is determined, it is based upon a sound intensity average over time. This is referred to as the NOISE DOSE. In occupational settings, a worker wears a measurement device called a dosimeter that periodically measures the intensity level to arrive at the noise dose. Depending on the average noise one is exposed to, risk to permanent hearing loss is determined. The measurement of steady noise (e.g., fan noise) is completed using a sound level meter, and quite easy because by definition, steady noise varies no more than +\-5dB. With steady noise, one is considered at risk when intensity levels exceed 90dB (SPL). Music, on the other hand, is very difficult to quantify in terms of intensity and its effect on hearing because of the variations in intensity. Recent reports have taken a "peak" decibel reading at a concert or with headphones and made a general statement regarding the noise dose. It is inappropriate to equate the effects of musical noise with occasional peaks at 115dB (SPL) with the adverse effects from steady noise of 115dB.
To parents who have purchased these devices for their children or want them to participate in other music programs, you should not have to feel guilty that you are somehow contributing to your child's irreparable hearing damage, because there is no proof it will ever happen.
To musicians who, because of the unsubstantiated reports from the press, are concerned about their chosen occupation and the adverse effects upon their own hearing, my clinical experience has shown musicians tend to have less hearing loss than non-musicians who are the same age. So enjoy your chosen profession! It is very unlikely that your ears or your hearing are being damaged by your surrounding music.
Note: I have been criticized by many of my collegues in audiology for making these remarks. I appreciate their concern, but in the absence of scientific data to the contrary, the null hypothesis is the basis of my rationale.
Axelsson, A., Eliasson, A., Israelsson, B. Hearing in pop/rock musicians: A follow up study. Ear & Hearing, 1995, 16:245-53.
Eaton, S., Gillis, H., Review of orchestra musicians' hearing loss risks. Canadian Acoustics, 2002:30, 5-12.