Shut up and put in those damn earplugs

The first time I ever experienced the beautiful catharsis of unrelenting noise was seeing excellent post-hardcore band Cursive. That initial encounter with the glory of triple digit decibels was unforgettable.

As I glided out of the concert in deafened bliss, a shrill pinging began to pierce my ears. The ring was distinct and distressing—it was as if the world’s largest housefly was violently thrashing against my eardrums. In my adolescent glee, I actually was proud to have that incessant static in my ears; it seemed like some sort of initiation into the world of live music.

What I didn’t realize was that I was celebrating the demise of sensitive, in-ear hair cells that are crucial to sending auditory impulses to the brain. Even though the ringing was gone after a few hours, roughly 50 million Americans must endure that screaming static for the rest of their lives due to a chronic, incurable condition known as tinnitus.

The American Tinnitus Association (ATA) defines tinnitus as “the perception of sound in one or both ears or in the head when no external sound is present.” There are numerous causes of tinnitus, ranging from multiple sclerosis to emotional stress, but prolonged exposure to loud music is the primary cause.

But exactly how loud is too loud?

The ATA suggests that hearing loss starts at exposure to roughly 85 decibels or more. For some perspective, rainfall is about 50 decibels, average traffic is about 85 decibels, a hairdryer around 100 decibels and a rock concert averages 120 decibels—well above the threshold for hearing damage.

The terrifying truth of tinnitus is that a lifetime of hearing damage can start with just one concert. One 52-year-old music fan experienced tinnitus after seeing Them Crooked Vultures at London’s Brixton Academy, and the ringing became so overwhelming that he experienced sleeplessness for days, causing him to commit suicide due to his debilitating condition.

While his story is certainly an extreme one, milder forms of tinnitus run rampant among concertgoers and musicians. Numerous artists have spoken up about about their tinnitus struggles with musicians from Thom Yorke to Barbara Streisand to Grimes to Ozzy Osbourne—all lamenting the physical and psychological impacts of tinnitus.

The good news is that a lifetime of healthy hearing and the ability to enjoy pure silence is easily insured through a pair of half decent earplugs. Sure, having two foam extensions protruding from your ears makes you resemble an alien, and your more hardcore friends may chide you for “giving in.” But what’s more important? Briefly looking ridiculous, or ensuring that maddening static isn’t constantly assaulting your eardrums?

I used to believe that wearing earplugs hindered the “authentic” concert experience, and there is a little bit of truth to that assertion. Low quality earplugs tend to muffle the frequencies of a concert unevenly, so one may hear the bass louder then the vocals or vice-versa. However, companies like Etymotic provide high-end earplugs for only $12.95 that evenly reduce frequencies so fans can still enjoy the cacophony of ear-splitting noise without the hearing loss.

Through just a teensy bit of foresight, anyone can avoid a lifetime of hearing loss and ringing pain. Next time your favorite black-death-viking-metal-band comes into town, do your ears a massive favor by simply sucking it up and putting in those damn earplugs.