The Sound of Silence

As far as history is concerned, 50 years is nothing, yet that is roughly how long rock n’ roll has existed. The time between Elvis’ “That’s All Right” and Pete Townshend’s pyrotechnics on “I Can’t Explain” was barely more than a decade, yet the two tunes seem light years apart. Add another decade and artists such as Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, and Jeff Beck had already solidified the image of the archetypal guitar god; low-slung guitars, long hair and loads of Marshall stacks cranked to the hilt. Despite the fastmoving evolution of the music itself, acknowledgement among musicians of the dangers of exposure to those cranked Marshalls would remain non-existent for at least another decade.

And while musicians may be reticent to discuss hearing loss – with Townshend himself waiting until 1989 to discuss his “very severe hearing damage” – non-profit organizations and concerned doctors have been trying to change the cultural climate surrounding hearing protection for years. Organizations like H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers), founded in 1988 by musician Kathy Peck following an excessively loud San Francisco rock concert, have long fought to change the view of hearing protection as lame and unnessecary.

As stars like Neil Young and Ted Nugent have stepped into the spotlight and opened up about their battles with hearing loss, groups like H.E.A.R. and the American Tinnitus Association have gained some ground; unfortunately, there remains a segment of young rockstars who live by the motto, “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.” As evidence of such, August 2007 found Total Guitar reporting on the British band, Gallows, and their success in officially becoming the loudest band in the world. Harnessing a mess of Laney heads, Gallows played for 60 seconds at 132.5dB – equivalent to a jet engine at takeoff – and seemingly proved a new generation’s desire for ear-numbing volume [ed note: the band did wear hearing protection during the attempt].

The science behind hearing loss is certainly nothing new, but in a finding that should interest the musical world, the most recent study commissioned by Shure and presented by Sensaphonics at the American Academy of Audiology meeting in June of this year indicated that over 77% of the musicians studied suffer from minimal hearing loss, a noise notch, asymmetry in hearing thresholds between ears, and/or tinnitus. That number is too large for an ailment we now know is avoidable.

The Sound of Silence

Your Ear, Explained
But to truly understand why protecting our hearing is so vital, first we must understand how the process works. In a biological eccentricity, we hear through a mechanical process. Our other senses – smell, vision, taste and touch – all involve chemical processes, but hearing is based on physical movement, and that movement is caused by vibrations. When a sound occurs, such as speech or music, the air molecules vibrate around the sound event, analogous to the ripples created when throwing a rock in a pond. And, like the water ripples, the air molecules aren’t actually moving from one spot to another, but transferring vibration from one to the next.

Regardless of whether a sound, or vibration, is caused by a starter pistol or an acoustic guitar, the start of that vibration, or initial increase in pressure, is called a compression, due to the molecules closest to the sound event jamming together at the initial phase of the vibration. They then ease up when the vibration begins to go the other way, decreasing the air pressure. This is called a rarefaction.

The ear picks up these changes in air pressure, and sends the information down the ear canal to the eardrum. The eardrum acts like the diaphragm of a microphone, suspended and able to vibrate freely. Just like the output produced by traditional electric guitar pickups – so small it needs a preamp to be brought up to a level that can be amplified – the compressions and rarefactions that are picked up by the eardrum are not strong enough to make the journey through the fluid-filled cochlea, needing the three bones collectively known as the ossicles to get the level up so to speak. This works through both simple physics (levers) and decidedly non-simple hydraulic amplification.

After this, the sound reaches the cochlea, a fluid-filled organ cast in the familiar snail-shell shape. The vibrations arriving from the ossicles sets the fluid in motion, which in turn causes thousands of tiny hairs to sway back and forth. As these hairs move, the vibrations are converted into electrical signals and sent to the brain.

The unfortunate thing about this highly orchestrated dance is that the hairs (located on the Organ of Corti, which runs the length of the cochlea) responsible for translating high-frequency vibrations into sound live closest to the chochlea’s opening. As high levels of sound pressure – whether it be from the Tool show you just sat through or the jackhammer in midtown traffic – bombard these hairs, those closest to the action become flattened and damaged. And over a period of time, you hear less high-frequency information.