You either came across the earplugs discussion when starting to play the drums, or you’ve seen drummers wear those. There are excellent reasons to use them.
Wearing earplugs lowers the sound volume that arrives at the eardrum, to prevent long-term hearing loss or tinnitus. Special earplugs for musicians allow you to hear all the music but at a lower noise level.
In this article, we will explore more exciting information about the reasons why drummers should absolutely wear earplugs and what can be prevented by that.
The Need to Wear Earplugs While Playing
Studies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that as many as 30 to 50 percents of musicians suffer from hearing problems. Looking especially at drummers, over 57% of professional drummers and 44% of amateur drummers complaining about ringing in their ears (tinnitus). You have an almost four times higher risk of having tinnitus than non-musicians. Even Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich has dealt with ringing. As far as general hearing loss is concerned, one study showed that almost 40% of drummers and percussionists were affected compared to 9% of the reference population.
Tinnitus is the sensation of noises or ringing in the ears, perceiving sounds when there are no external sounds present. Its symptoms may include phantom sounds like ringing, humming, roaring, or clicking. These sounds can vary in pitch from a low roar to a high squeak, and you can hear it in one or both ears. In some cases, the sound may be loud enough to affect your ability to concentrate or hear external sounds. Tinnitus may be there at all times, or it may come and go.
But it’s also fun to let it bang on the drums, to give everything on the hanging toms and cymbals. You will hear that. Not just your bandmates, but you, too. It’s great, but it can get too loud sometimes. And so loud indeed that you run the risk of suffering long-term damage to your hearing.
No matter if you play drums (over 100 decibels or dB), rehearse with fellow musicians (guitar amps can reach 120 dB), or go to a concert (rock shows can have over 110 dB), you should wear earplugs. A repeated exposure exceeding only 85 dB may result in hearing loss. This begins with a temporary beeping in your ears after a session of practice in the studio and can end as lasting hearing loss. To say the least, I bet it’s not something you would want at all.
Lately, I read a story online about a drummer who started playing since he was about eight or nine years old, and he didn’t start using protection regularly until he was about 21. That’s about 13 to 14 years without permanent ear protection. As of today, eight years later, he says that his hearing is surprisingly okay. However, his left ear is worse than his right, as venues tend to place drum monitors on the left side.
The London Free Press recently published an interview with Godsmack drummer Shannon Larkin revealed what advice he would give to the younger drummers. He replied:
“It may not sound very sexy, but wear earplugs. When I was in my mid-thirties, my wife and I got up alternately at night to feed my daughter and change her diapers, but I couldn’t even hear my daughter crying in the same room. The truth is, you’ll thank me for this.”
Shannon Larkin (Godsmack)
So using earplugs is one right solution to the problem. By wearing earplugs, you usually hear the band’s sound completely, just a little more softly.
What Types of Products Can Be Used?
So if you don’t like the way earplugs feel, or if you’ve convinced yourself that it’s too late to protect your ears, give it a second thought. There are ways! The market is full of products to choose from when it comes to protecting your hearing. The offers can be grouped into the following categories:
- Foam earplugs: They are cheap, easy to get, single-use items, and can reduce the volume by 20-33 dB. One size fits most, and they are efficient in most environments.
- Triple flanged earplugs: An upgrade from the foam earplugs, silicone earplugs are reusable, easier to fit, and have a filter that can block out certain frequencies. They are supplied in a flanged shape, and the volume can be reduced by 12-29 dB. Pay attention to the “High Fidelity” on the label to ensure that the sound remains clear even when the volume is reduced.
- Custom-molded earplugs: Perhaps drummers don’t like wearing foam earplugs when they play with other musicians due to cutting out more sound than they would like. Custom earplugs are perfectly tailored to your ear canal, and you have the choice, for example, of those that only exclude high frequencies (such as cymbals) and still allow everything else to be heard easily. These can be expensive, but undoubtedly worth it. You can also use them with in-ear monitoring systems.
- Noise-isolating headphones: If you genuinely dislike earplugs of any kind, you may want to get some noise-reducing over-ear headphones and nevertheless can listen to music when you need it.
- Earmuffs: In case you do not require monitoring or do not want to listen to recorded music or click tracks, use some construction-graded earmuffs to block the noises physically. Meanwhile, such earmuffs are also available from renowned drum gear manufacturers who offer them with headphone function. Strictly speaking, these are noise-isolating headphones, but they look like earmuffs – only with a cable.
Other Ways to Play at Lower Sound Levels
If you’re going to go at it from the ground up, you should start with the drummer himself. There are vast fields of application in which it’s sufficient to play soft or more quiet than you would do when playing a rock gig. Yes, soft drumming requires a firm technique. But it’s always just a matter of practice. Examples are playing an unplugged jazz gig or when you’re merely playing with musicians that are not as noisy as a drumset can be. When you’re okay with broadening your musical horizon, an acoustic gig is a perfect occasion to play a Cajon. Ever thought about varying up a little?
Of course, just “not playing drums” isn’t the only way to lower the sound volume – it might not be the best for many. A severe reason for high noise levels can be the band rehearsal situation. Do you rehearse with electric guitarists? Bright, loud amps might also cause a drummer’s hearing loss.
You can solve this by asking your bandmates to turn down their amplifiers; guitarists often compete with drums (and each other) for the level of volume, particularly in the heavier genres, such as rock and metal. If that’s not possible, set up the amps so that they point away from you and position them in front of your drums. This might make it more difficult for you to hear the music. Therefore if you’re unable to play softly, it pays to invest in in-ear monitors to ensure that you hear all the sounds clearly and can control the volume by yourself.
When not playing in a band, you can, fortunately, limit harmful frequencies (and not bother your neighbors) by making a wise choice of equipment. For example, by using low volume cymbals, quiet drumheads, damping pads, or directly an electronic drum set.
Why Do Some Drummers Still Play Without Ear Protection?
This discussion is a relevant topic, and that’s only because there are opposite views. The opposing view of the recommendation “Wear Earplugs!” is also packed with interesting arguments.
Some people hate wearing earplugs at most shows, and they might lack a great in-ear setup as well. They go without it for the sake of being able to hear things more clearly – in the short term.
But it’s a pretty quick matter of figuring out it’s more agreeable to wearing earplugs vs. pain and hearing everything muffled for at least a few hours after playing. After those lessons, a fellow drummer says that he’s now trying to wear hearing protection at shows, and his enjoyment of them has increased because he no longer feels like hell afterward.
Hearing loss or damage cannot be reversed, and in all reality, it can only be slowed down.