How a musician lives with irreversible ear damage

Call it a musician’s worst nightmare.

When I had my ears checked a few weeks back, tests revealed that I had a “mild sensory-neural hearing loss” in my right ear.

The thing is, the results weren’t new to me.

I’d known since 1990 that I had tinnitus. You know that ringing sensation in your ear after you attend a loud concert, or hear fireworks go off, or have someone mischievously deliver a loud clap to “Supplies!”? It’s irritating, may give you a headache… but it goes away, and you’re normal again.

But, imagine hearing it constantly even without any stimuli. In a quiet room, you’re wondering if there’s a chorus of crickets next to you. That’s the condition I have. It’s my new normal and I’m gonna have it for the rest of my life.

Damage is irreversible

The doctor delivered somewhat reassuring news: I was still okay, he said, and the loss is minimal. Normal conversations, around 50-60dB, are still clear.

There are many possible causes of tinnitus, but one of the most common is exposure to loud sounds. Sensitive inner ear hair cells are essentially killed as a result; other neurons get activated and send signals to the brain’s auditory area, which results in a perception of sound. The damage is irreversible.

(This, of course, is not to be confused with hearing voices. There’s another doctor—or exorcist—for that.)

Mine started with rehearsing for at least four hours a night, four nights a week two decades ago…plus gigs. When I was with the Dawn, our manager then and audtio engineer Martin Galan measured the loudness of one of our regular rehearsals and raised a red flag: we had cranked it up to around 125dB (90dB is considered dangerous).

Martin was alarmed. The band was intrigued but carried on. The ringing initially subsided in those early days, and I didn’t mind the drummer’s China crash cymbal four feet away from me. Besides, rock guitarists want to feel powerful (or in my case, taller) by cranking the amp at groin-rattling volumes.

How to live with the fear


The ringing in my ear began (and never stopped) less than a year into my stint with the Dawn. Over the years, I lived in fear of going deaf. So I calibrated my exposure to the hazards of my calling: minimized using headphones or earphones, stayed away from cymbals, and didn’t set guitar amps at angles straight into anyone’s ears.

When I watched concerts or did studio work, I would step out every 30 minutes or so to give my ears a break. I also reacquainted myself with a virtue, patience, especially in my role as a producer who can’t get his recording artist to get one idea done right. But I digress....

Although I was aware my ears were in trouble then had the point driven home by working on “Dinig Sana Kita,” an indie film about literal and metaphorical deafness, I delayed having my ears checked.

When I told my doctor I’d had tinnitus (which can’t be measured conventionally) in both ears since 1990, he asked me, quite urgently, if it interfered with my daily life. He explained that some tinnitus sufferers can’t lead normal lives because they’re constantly distracted by the ringing sound.

No, I told him. I’ve long accepted it and taken responsibility for it. He told me bluntly that given my exposure to loud music, the damage could have been much worse and implored me to wear earplugs to prevent further damage.  Apparently, stress, caffeine, nicotine, some medications and alcohol can aggravate the condition.

Turn down the volume

Unlike our other senses (laser surgery and cornea replacement to right our sight), our hearing has yet to benefit from corrective measures. Hearing aids only amplify what’s left of one’s hearing…which is too late. Our ears are, comparatively, simpler and more delicate machines which we take for granted.

Do you put on your earphones and turn it up (regardless of what you’re listening to) at a level where outside noise is inaudible? That is an easy and dangerous 115dB (or more) mere millimeters from your eardrums.

If so, congratulations, you’re on your way to Tinnitus City, the city that never shuts down.  Sure you’ll be in the company of other musicians who have the condition like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ozzy Ozborne, Bono, James Hetfield of Metallica (well, duh) and Pete Townshend of The Who (ditto).

But, take it from a resident: you wouldn’t want to live here.

For more information, check out the H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers) at  http://www.hearnet.com.

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