One of my fellow bloggers, Pete Townshend, has warned music fans against potential hearing damage caused by headphones as portable players become more popular. Pete has a blogspot blog here, where he is serialising his novella The Boy Who Heard Music. The bit below on hearing is taken from his diary which is on this site.
29 Dec 2005
But today, this very morning, after a night in the studio trying to crack a difficult song demo, I wake up realizing again - reminding myself, and feeling the need to remind the world - that my own particular kind of damage was caused by using earphones in the recording studio, not playing loud on stage. My ears are ringing, loudly. This rarely happens after a live show, unless the Who play a small club. This is a peculiar hazard of the recording studio.The point I'm making is that it is not live sound that causes hearing damage. Earphones do the most damage.
In a studio there are often accidental buzzes, shrieks and poor connections that cause temporary high level sounds. Playing drums with earphones on is probably a form of insanity I think, all those gunshots, so much louder than a real gunshot, but how else can a drummer hear the other musicians? When I work solo now I often avoid using a drummer, simply to keep the overall sound levels lower. Also, one might have to work for several hours to perfect a studio performance. As the work progresses, the ears shut down and one needs a higher volume. If you stop to rest your ears (and you need to do so for at least 36 hours to do any good) you lose the current performance. It is a tough call.
I have unwittingly helped to invent and refine a type of music that makes its principal proponents deaf. It takes time, but it happens. This is, I suppose, no worse than being a sports person or dancer who knows they have a limited working span, and their body will suffer. The rewards are great - money, fame, adulation and a real sense of self-worth and achievement. But music is a calling for life. You can write it when you're deaf, but you can't hear it or perform it.
Last night, I was working with a piece of music that depended on me finding a correlation between the harmonic clusters in a piece composed using a computer - rather electronic in nature - and the overtones of a normal acoustic piano. With my hearing rolling off severely now at around three or four kiloherz, I don't have much luck with high harmonics or piano overtones (I can still hear speech OK). Needless to say, I didn't finish what I started. I drift back to the familiar tools of acoustic guitar and piano with my experimental tail between my legs.
If you watch the movie currently playing on TowserTV, the Who performing at Irvine in August 2000, you will see John Entwistle attempt to play his grand bass solo on the song Five Fifteen. You may find yourself wondering why such a fluid, expressive and accomplished player should continually drift out of time with the drummer (Zak Starkey). It happened because John couldn't hear properly. John still gives an astounding display, but he rarely stayed in time in that solo.
Hearing loss is a terrible thing because it cannot be repaired. If you use an iPod or anything like it, or your child uses one, you MAY be OK. It may only be studio earphones that cause bad damage. I only have long experience of the studio side of things (though I've listened to music for pleasure on earphones for years, long before the Walkman was introduced). But my intuition tells me there is terrible trouble ahead. The computer is now central to our world. If downloading has a real downside it may not be the fact that musicians will get their music stolen - in truth, they appear quite ready to give it away for nothing. The downside may be that on our computers - for privacy, for respect to family and co-workers, and for convenience - we use earphones at almost every stage of interaction with sound.
I am forced to continue to take my time in the recording studio. Those 36 hour hearing rests are infuriating now that a tour is announced, frustrating and agonizing, but compulsory.