Personal Music Players & Hearing

9. How can listening to music harm hearing?

  • 9.1 Is hearing loss increasing among young people?
  • 9.2 Can using personal music players raise the hearing threshold?
  • 9.3 Is tinnitus more frequent among users of personal music players?
  • 9.4 How can attending concerts and night clubs affect hearing?
Music in nightclubs and concerts is even louder than that from music players
Music in nightclubs and concerts is even louder than that from music players
Source: Bernard Bastien

Exposure to loud sounds is the main cause of hearing loss. Until 30 years ago, most harmful noise exposures took place at the workplace. Today, adults as well as adolescents and children are increasingly exposed to loud sounds in their leisure time, notably through the use of personal music players (and mobile phones with MP3 function) More...

9.1 Is hearing loss increasing among young people?

Most epidemiological studies on hearing, including very recent ones, have not found any increase in hearing loss in young people over the last decades nor have they established any link between listening to music and hearing loss. According to these studies, the proportion of young individuals with slight hearing alterations as a consequence of excessive exposure to loud sounds has remained constant over the last 20 years and ranges between 5% and nearly 20%.

However, some studies have found the proportion of people with sound-induced hearing damage to be greater in younger generations. A study from 2005 shows for instance that, with time, as young teenagers grow and spend more time in leisure activities involving music (such as attending discos and listening to personal music players) they gradually lose the ability to hear quiet sounds. The authors concluded that exposure to loud sounds during leisure activities, but not necessarily from personal music players, could be a cause of permanent hearing damage among young people with sensitive ears.

To summarise, most epidemiological studies do not support the view that there is widespread hearing loss caused by exposure to loud music in young people under the age of 21 years. However, some authors stress that if young people continue to listen to music for long periods of time and at high volume levels during several years, they run the risk of developing hearing loss by the time they reach their mid-twenties. Different testing methods have detected slight hearing alterations which could be early signs of hearing impairment. More...

9.2 Can using personal music players raise the hearing threshold?

People exposed to loud sounds from personal music players run an increased risk of hearing loss, which means that their hearing threshold is no longer as low as before and that it becomes harder for them to hear weak sounds.

Short exposures of a few hours at levels close to the maximum volume setting of the device can cause immediate effects which are temporary.

Over several years, permanent effects may result from repeated daily exposures to moderate sound levels that exceed the exposure that is allowed in a work setting.

The temporary effects of using personal music players on hearing have been studied by exposing healthy volunteers to different volume levels of music for a few hours. Many of these volunteers had a higher hearing threshold after being exposed to relatively loud music; however, the effect was temporary and the hearing threshold returned to normal within minutes in some cases, and within 24 hours in others. The type of music did not influence the results but loud music from percussion instruments seemed to raise the hearing threshold more than other types of sounds.

Regarding permanent effects, results of studies are contradictory. Most studies using conventional hearing tests show that listening to loud music has no effect on hearing threshold. However, the hearing test results of some users of personal music players show a distinctive pattern that is consistent with sound-induced damage. In a study from 1996, tinnitus and temporary hearing loss were found to be three times more frequent in personal music player users than in non-users. The study also found a permanent hearing loss among young users, but only for those who listened to loud music for more than 7 hours a week.

In a 1998 study, results of sensitive tests that detect slight changes in hearing were analysed for a group of people aged 10 to 59. Although only a few of these people reported any hearing problems, the results of the tests showed a difference between users and non-users of personal music players, but not among teenagers. However, detectable differences were found for the individuals aged 20 to 29 or more. The study concluded that these sensitive tests can detect premature hearing loss at an early stage and they also suggest that hearing impairment due to the use of personal music players occurs only in the late-teenage and early-adult period. A study using a different method also found that individuals using personal music players or those who attended nightclubs often had a significant hearing loss at certain frequencies.

Studies published more recently are also contradictory. Some studies find no significant effects of frequent use of personal music players or regular attendance at disco and rock concerts. Other studies find poorer hearing thresholds in users of personal music players than in non-users.

To establish whether exposure of teenagers to music from personal music players may influence their hearing once they get older, long-term studies using more sensitive methods are needed. More...

9.3 Is tinnitus more frequent among users of personal music players?

Tinnitus is a condition in which a person hears a ringing, buzzing or hissing sound which is caused by the hearing system and not by any external sources. It is often associated with hearing impairment, ageing or exposure to loud sounds.

There are many reports of tinnitus induced by loud music among young people. After exposure to very loud or sudden loud sounds, tinnitus appears rapidly and is often temporary. In opposition, when it results from long-term exposure to loud sounds tinnitus often only appears after several years but remains permanent.

Very few studies have studied the relationship between the use of personal music players and tinnitus. Two studies showed that users of portable cassette players were more likely than non-users to complain of tinnitus or temporary hearing loss. However, a more recent study from 2005 has found no link between use of personal music players and self-reported hearing loss or tinnitus. More...

9.4 How can attending concerts and night clubs affect hearing?

Sound levels of music in nightclubs and rock concerts can be very high and can reach up to 125 dB to 135 dB. Many people with normal hearing report high-pitched ringing in the ear (tinnitus) and temporary hearing loss afterwards. Short-term studies clearly demonstrate temporary hearing losses after exposure. This applies not only to young people attending these events but also to people who work there such as musicians, disk jockeys and other employees.

Results from health surveys among young people showed that the more time they spent in such venues, the greater their temporary hearing loss. However, there is no clear evidence that hearing loss induced by rock concerts has increased significantly over the last 30 years.

In one study, rock musicians who wore ear protections during concerts suffered less temporary hearing loss than those not wearing them. Several publications emphasised a larger number of cases of permanent hearing loss, tinnitus, and resistance to loud music among rock musicians.

The sound levels in classical orchestras are on average much lower than at rock concerts. However, some pieces of classical music contain sections that are played at high volumes for long periods of time. Musicians in orchestras could therefore also be at some risk of permanent sound-induced hearing loss. Very few studies have assessed this risk. Some have found slight hearing losses in many of the musicians tested. However, other studies have found no differences in hearing sensitivity between classical musicians and the general population, even for high pitched sounds. Overall, classical musicians can be exposed to excessive sound levels but there is no clear evidence that this exposure results in sound-induced hearing loss. More...

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