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Violin and hearing loss


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My teacher gave me a mute as a parting gift, since I'm in a

temporary apartment for the next few months in the middle of a

move.  Upon trying it, I complained a bit about the "stifling"

effect it had on my fiddle's normally "open" singing voice.


She said that I should play with a mute more regularly anyway, to

protect my hearing.

What?  I was taken aback...and if this was so, why didn't she

say so earlier?

So, I did some research.  It turns out that the violin, on

average, puts out 84-103db.  Which is in the threshold of

hearing damage the entire way.

Depending on what source you reference, anything over 85db makes

you vulnerable to damage.  That particular level can be held

for 8 hours (again, depending on source) until the damage is

permanent.  103db, however, is under an hour for safe exposure

before permanent damage.

What concerns me more is that I couldn't find any measures of sound

output that explained their methodology.  I.e. was the sample

taken from the player perspective?  I'll assume so, based on

the nature of the research...but that is just an assumption.

I know this has been discussed in the past (I did a search) but the

discussions were highly inconclusive, and contained no

numbers...mostly just vague speculation on the relative hearing

loss of varying prominent musicians.


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I would also love to hear some sound numbers; I have high frequency hearing loss and cannot hear the overtones of my violin unless I wear hearing aides in both ears. This definitely increases the perceived volume as well. The Feb. 07 issue of Fine Woodworking lists a shop vac at about 85 db; table saw at about 93 and circular saw at about 102. When I use those tools I definite use hearing protectors. My violin sure doesn't sound that loud! I'll ask my audiologist if she has any information on Wednesday. Thanks for the topic.

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On my medium-loud fiddle, I read 93 db, A-weighted, at the left ear


I've read clear data from the Audio Engineering Society's

archives that shows a high correlation between violin playing and

left-ear loss. Sadly, the typical range of

noise-indiced cochlear damage is centered at 3 Khz, exactly where a

violin's power resides. This makes us especially prone

to damage.  ALWAYS use an earplug, or practice with

headphones.  If someone tells you otherwise, hit

them upside the head and walk away.

BTW,  piccolos have been shown to produce 112 db at ear

position, for certain frequencies!  That's not a misprint.

A quick except from one AES document, with references:

"Violins and violas can be sufficiently loud to cause permanent

hearing loss. This is typically worse in the left ear which is

nearer the instrument. Unlike other instruments, the ability to

hear the high-frequency harmonics is crucial to these musicians.

Mutes can be used while practicing to reduce long term exposure.

(Karlsson, Lundquist et al. 1983; Ostri, Eller et al. 1989;

Royster, Royster et al. 1991; Sataloff 1991; Palin 1994; Teie 1998;

Obeling and Poulsen 1999; Hoppmann 2001; Kahari, Axelsson et al.

2001). In a study of rock/Jazz musicions, almost 3/4 had a hearing

disorder, with hearing loss, hyperacusis and tinnitus being the

most common maladies. (Kaharit, Zachau et al. 2003) "

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Those are some sobering numbers Allan.  I suppose I will need

to look into earplugs.  I have earplugs that I wear in the

jet, but those might be so muffling that I won't "hear" my violin

very well.

I don't like the way my violin sounds with a mute...but I suppose

I'll do what I have to do.  And to think, I was SO proud of

the oh so loud voice on my fiddle...

By the way, the adbots on this message board are awfully good.

 When I view this thread, I see ads on the side about treating

hearing loss.  Maybe I should go back and look at that out of

control "sea turtle frog" thread to check out what ads are adorning

the side.

I look forward to "hearing" some more about noise, hearing

protection, and hearing loss from all of you.  Thanks for the

information Allan.

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Your welcome.  Glad your taking this issue seriously, not

everyone does.

FWIW,  I don't recommend practicing with a mute.  They

drastically change both the frequency response AND the timbral

response of the instrument, and this could cause you to

develop improper technique, as you try to compensate.

Use good earplugs, or headphones with a "live" mic.

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Originally posted by:

Those are some sobering numbers Allan. I suppose I will need

to look into earplugs. I have earplugs that I wear in the

jet, but those might be so muffling that I won't "hear" my violin

very well.

If you're concerned, there are special musician ear plugs that can reduce sound without muffling it. Some brand names are Etymotic, Sensaphonics, EarInc, & Westone. Most of the good ones need to be ordered through an audiologist.

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Thanks again for the info.  Erika, do all of those

earplugs/earpieces you mentioned come via an audiologist, or are

some available at your local music store?

What price ranges do a musician's earplug run in, and what is the

fundamental difference between those, and any other earplug?

 Is it that they don't change tone timbre/color?  

The earplugs I fly with are the yellow "foamies" that are just

supposed to suppress everything.  Kind of irritating, and they

not only cut volume, but make everything sound "muffled" as well.

 That, and your breathing echoes in your ears.  They're

also supposed to be one use disposable, but I usually get about 3-4

flights out of a pair, just because I hate wasting.  Not that

you care about any of that info, but I throw that out to give a

comparison picture for contrasting with a "musician's" earplug.

Allan, I certainly am taking this seriously.  I've been

playing all this time, fat dumb and happy, until that one little

comment from my teacher.  I'm glad you don't recommend the

mute as the preferred technique, because I dislike playing with a

mute for the exact reasons you mentioned.  What it does to

tone "quality", and not just volume is not to my general liking.

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Originally posted by:

Thanks again for the info. Erika, do all of those

earplugs/earpieces you mentioned come via an audiologist, or are

some available at your local music store?

What price ranges do a musician's earplug run in, and what is the

fundamental difference between those, and any other earplug?

Is it that they don't change tone timbre/color?

The one's I'm familiar with only come through an audiologist. The audiologist makes a mold of your ear and then the earplugs are custom-made for a perfect fit. They're not cheap, I'm afraid (about $150+). This page has some specifics on how they work. My husband had a set once but turned out to be allergic to the material. (Something else to consider, if you're the allergic type.)

The Indy orchestra has freebie bins of those disposable foam earplugs backstage for the musicians to use if they want. They squash more of the sound and overtones than the musician's plugs do. Mostly I see players use them with Pops soloists who think they need a busload of amps.

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ER custom plugs work well but are expensive. The much less costly stock musicians plugs (which work with the same technology) are now available in the new Shar catalog (not with the Etymotic name, but they look identical to me). They work as well acoustically, but they are not so comfortable over long stretches. In addition, they protrude from the ear somewhat whereas the custom plugs are flush with the ear.

You can change the level of sound reduction on the molded plugs (at additional cost). The custom fit plugs are very comfortable. I can wear mine for many hours at a time.

Acoustically, they are not dead flat, but they are much more balanced than any stock earlplug. There's an ear learning curve too. You will find them much less objectionable in a few weeks of use, after which music sounds very natural with them. I would strongly recommend them to any musician. It is a small investment relatively speaking.

One other note. Use caution when removing or inserting any earplug as the air pressure changes are sudden and significant. Risk to the eardrum and middle ear mechanism can be minimized by inserting or removing with slow and careful movement. Musician's earplugs plugs offer an advantage of some breathability through the micro filter, but still use caution with these too.

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Thanks for the review GMM.  I was looking at the ER website

that Erika provided...interesting stuff.

It sounds like you use the ER earplugs...which do you use?  I

pretty much ruled out the 9db one...but I was trying to decide

between the 15db and 25db.  25db would likely keep me

absolutely safe.  If my violin averages 100db, then 15db

protection gets me to 85db...the 8 hour safe figure.  So, if

you have info on which you use, I'd certainly appreciate any

further words.  The info that you provided is certainly


I'm glad I asked this question.  You guys have provided some

terrific data and experience with this.

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A very cheap device which you can make yourself and which has a great advantage over all sorts of earplugs is the following:

Take a piece of light material (corrugated cardboard is what I use) and cut it to a half-circle shape about 15 cm wide, which fits over your head (like a halo). Cover it with velvet and attach some stiff (spring-like) wire around the inner diameter, so that you can pull it over your head just in front of your ears. The low ends should be bent bachwards a little. This shields and protects your ears from the direct sound from the top of your violin and has the additional advantage, that you hear yourself from a certain distance, much like your audience hears you.

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I use 15dB reduction.

Regarding overtone attenuation, that is the problem with earplugs in general. They attenuate higher frequencies much more efficiently than low ones. Products like those under discussion are considerably flatter across the spectrum. Yes, there is still some attenuation of overtones, but it is less than can be had with any conventional plug. I like good fidelity as much as anyone, and still I enjoy playing with my earplugs on. Once you adjust, you can actually forget you are wearing them and the sound is respectable. Plus, you get to play with a certain abandonment that you might not normally (unless you are already suffering hearing loss).

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This is a great thread. Thanks for some really good information.

Even without ear plugs, a violin never sounds the same under the ear as it does away from you. So the fact that plugs may change the sound under the ear is really not a strike against plugs. You have to know how the sound under your ear correlates to the sound being sent out into the room, with or without ear plugs, and adjust accordingly. In other words, as GMM suggests, with plugs in place, you can learn to adapt to the sound you're hearing and know what to do to produce the sound you want out in the room.

I'll definitely look into professional quality plugs.

For those who want immediate relief and don't have immediate access to professional ear plugs, a small ball of cotton may help -- the cotton that comes in fluffy, fiberous white balls, not the finished material for clothes kind.

For years now, after I noticed that my left ear felt some discomfort from the volume and some pitches from the violin, I've been putting a plug of cotton into the left ear. The cotton ball is small enough to fit almost entirely into the canal but still be reached with the fingers. It does not distort intonation to the point that you can't judge intonation, nor does it distort tone quality, once you're used to it and have some idea of under the ear/out in the room correlation. In fact, as GMM suggests, I find I can go at the fiddle with more energy, producing fuller fortes, because I don't have to back off to favor the sensitivity of the left ear.

The amount of cotton you use and how tightly the cotton is packed will determine how much volume (and probably higher frequencies) you filter out. So, the cotton ball is an adjustable ear plug. After a few tries, you get very good at making, very quickly, a plug of cotton of just the right density and size.

Cotton's cheap, and you can throw away the plug after each use, making this a hygienic process.

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Some people hold the instrument and position their head in such a way that the left ear takes more of a beating than it needs to. By this, I mean instrument to the left and head forward; so the left ear is a couple inches away from the f-holes and the right ear is 180 degrees around your head from them. Pinchas Zukerman generally plays in this position. Many violists use this position too, more than violinists. But violas are usually softer than violins.

If you're worried about hearing loss it might be better to turn your head so that you are facing the instrument, nose pointing to scroll. Heifetz played in this position.

An instrument with a bit of cushion to the sound or softer strings can help with the up-close loudness factor too.

I still think the risks of playing violin or viola regarding hearing loss is nothing compared to going clubbing or to love rock concerts regularly. I don't remember the exact numbers, but your average R&B or hip-hop club was much, much louder than a violin.

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To be candid moving the head a few inches is not going to help. In addition, one might then be sacrificing optimal playing posture for not much return.

Going to rock concerts is less dangerous to the hearing than standing next to jet planes or listening to gunfire, but using such comparative logic is completely the wrong approach to the problem. Hearing loss is still not given serious consideration by most musicians.

To be blunt again, the biggest obstacle is vanity. When I was 16, I wouldn't be caught dead wearing a winter hat. After getting frostnip (precursor to frostbite) on the ears, my attitude changed. I now love my flaps and I am most perplexed when I see others around me suffering needlessly in the blistering cold. Perhaps they just want to look good while they turn blue.

Same goes for earplugs. I used to be shy about wearing them. A single 3 minute exposure in an industrial woodworking facility has left me with fine hearing, but searing tinnitus. Since then, I wear them practically everywhere the noise is excessive, and the last thing on my list of things to worry about is what someone thinks.

As noted earlier, the hazards of violins has been proven.

Your opinions might change when you get your first hearing test that shows quantifiable hearing loss, or when you wake up with a buzz that is going to be with you for the rest of time.

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I agree with GMM22, although why he gets cold is a mystery to me....he's the fricken Sun!!!

Anyway, I too don ear plugs when I play. Usually just the left ear. I finish practice and when I remove it I am amazed at how dead the Right ear sounds. And it's the one AWAY from the problem. I have a couple of musician ones I bought online somewhere and don't find much difference between them. Basically I put them in and if they're too muffling I pull them out a bit till I get the right amount of 'cut' in sound. From then on I can hardly tell I'm wearing them, and I am strongly wanting to hear the sweetness and everything I paid for to come out of that violin.

Sometimes I will even wear one in performance! The violin can be so darn loud I sometimes hold back, and then someone after says they couldn't hear me. Well not any more!


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In my experience, the rotation of the head makes a huge difference to the amount of sound hitting the left ear. With the head facing forward, not only is the left ear closer to the f-holes, but is also almost in a direct line of them. When facing the violin/viola the few inches help, but now neither ear is in the direct line of the f's. It can work technically to play either way, without sacrificing posture.

If the few inches don't make a difference why do you think that people are only complaining about their left ears? Not the right ear.

I know higher frequencies (A and E strings) move in a more direct line while lower ones move in more of a circular pattern.

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Concerning the debate between Flaco and GMM about how useful it is to turn one's head toward the scroll, from my experience, both are right, depending on what you're trying to do.

I find that turning the head toward the scroll does make a difference in the comfort in sound I experience in playing. It doesn't sound as loud to the left ear with the head turned toward the scroll.

I find, however, that I sacrifice comfort in playing position by turning my head toward the scroll. I don't play with a shoulder rest and tend to consequently point the fiddle more to the left than a player who does use a shoulder rest.

I'm also willing to believe GMM's point that hearing damage won't be appreciably mitigated by moving the head a few inches. In other words, just because a level of sound is not causing discomfort, it may still be loud enough to cause damage, over the long run.

For me the perfect compromise in comfort in holding the instrument and left ear comfort is to point the fiddle to the left, necessarily leaving the left ear right above the fiddle, and putting something (cotton) in the left ear to cut down on volume.

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GMM, I agree about the "vanity factor" with the earplugs.

 That feeling, as a matter of fact, was the initial gut level

feel I had when contemplating this.  

I already have a bit of tinnitus...not from the violin, but from my

job.  Comes with the territory I suppose.  So I'm fairly

serious about protecting my already lightly dented hearing.

 I'll get over the "vanity" of the earplugs fairly


Bean, the best warnings are the voices of experience, though too

often people ignore those.

Regarding the raging debate...I'm not an expert, but I do happen to

side with GMM in that moving the f-holes a couple of inches isn't

going to generate appreciable protection for you.  It may help

to even the sound distribution, but not much else.  I suppose

though that if both ears are equally numb after playing for a

lengthy amount of time, you may misattribute and think that the

left simply got off better this time for the new f-hole


Allan, if you're still reading this, what kind of earplugs/hearing

protection do you use?

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