When you first start to master an instrument like the guitar, the rich sound you experience as you play is pure pleasure: it is what captivates us and makes a real guitar sound so evocative. That beautiful sound is why you go religiously to your guitar lessons. It’s why you practice for hours on end in your bedroom. And it’s why the last thing you want to do is dull your senses by donning a pair of ear-plugs.
So why do so many professional guitarists wear ear-plugs when they’re on stage? Are they just so accustomed to the music and lifestyle that it bores them? Would they rather drown out the riffs that their fans pay so much money to hear live at full volume?
They are simply protecting their ears. The question is, should you be protecting your ears with plugs, or is it fine to attend guitar lessons, play with friends and family, and even give a concert without them.
Ear Plugs Protect you from Tinnitus and Hearing Loss
Ever been to a very loud concert and gone home with a persistent ringing in your ears, long after the music stopped? That’s what it’s like to have tinnitus, only with tinnitus the buzzing or ringing never goes away!
If that sounds unpleasant, then you’re probably right: although as many as 1 in 5 people suffer from some form of tinnitus, most describe it as a difficult thing to deal with. And there is no cure, only a number of techniques for coping with a life surrounded by noise.
Tinnitus is technically a symptom, not a disease in itself. It can be caused by a number of things, but usually it relates to damage to the tiny hairs in your inner ear. And the most common cause of that damage is exposure to excessive noise. That’s why professional musicians wear ear-plugs, and why you should too if you regularly expose yourself to high volume music.
The other problem most commonly associated with prolonged exposure to high volume sound is hearing loss. Partial hearing loss may not be a problem if you’re a rock guitarist, but can be more of a problem for classical music lovers who want to hear all the nuances of a gentle tune.
Is a guitar loud enough to damage ears?
If you play an acoustic guitar quietly on your own, then the answer is probably not. However, a recent study in the Netherlands suggests that you don’t have to be an electric guitarist in a heavy metal band to experience dangerous levels of sound.
As part of his PhD research, Eindhoven University of Technology student Rémy Wenmaekers developed a mathematical model to work out the sound levels reaching the ears of different members of a classical orchestra. His findings are surprising: the trumpet, flute, violin and viola players all experience sound levels above the 85 decibel limit, which, in Europe, requires the compulsory use of ear protection at work.
The levels that these classical musicians experience are akin to those at a rock concert. Another pice of Wenmaekers’ research is even more surprising: Most of the sound was coming from the musicians’ own instruments, not the rest of the orchestra!
He concluded that even amateur musicians playing at home could be exposing themselves to dangerous sound levels, capable of leading to hearing loss or tinnitus.
Learn to use ear-plugs, but maybe not in every guitar lesson
The main reason many amateur guitarists don’t want to use ear-plugs is not because they’re uncool: it’s because they find they can’t hear themselves – or the rest of the band – properly. Wenmaekers, who is himself a musician, suggests that people need to learn to play their instruments wearing ear-plugs from an early age, in order to get used to using them.
This isn’t to say that you need to wear earplugs in your guitar lesson, when you are likely only playing a bit and also talking with your teacher. But it might be worth getting a decent pair of silicon earplugs – designed for musicians – and getting accustomed to them: you never know when you’ll get booked for your first concert!