The short answer is yes, playing the violin can cause hearing loss. However, that doesn’t mean that playing the violin will certainly impair your hearing and completely ruin your ears. There are many precautions you can take, and many violinists have done that for years, to keep their most important asset in good shape throughout their music career.
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is commonly developed among professional musicians, as well as avid music listeners and headphone users. Musicians are also more prone to develop tinnitus which shows as an incessant ringing in the ears.
NIHL is permanent and can be caused by a sudden very loud noise, but the most common cause of it is prolonged exposure to high-pitched noises. NIHL is preventable and can be easily avoided by using certain preventative measures.
The Most Common Causes of Hearing Loss in Musicians
For you to understand the common causes of hearing loss, it is essential to understand how you hear. Fundamentally, a soundwave is caught by the outer ear and filtered down the ear canal until it bumps into the eardrum.
This creates a tremble, which accordingly gets passed through the petite bones of the middle ear. The vibration then travels onto the inner ear, which contains fluid and is lined with fine hair cells, the primary sensory receptors. The vibration causes these hair cells to move.
The movement creates an impulse that travels through the auditory nerve to the brain where it is transcribed as sound. If the noise is too loud or you're exposed to it too long, it can forever damage the hair cells located in the inner ear.
Unlike other cells, the hair cells don't grow back once damaged. The main causes of inner ear hair cell damage are:
- Repeated exposure to sound 85 dB or higher for 8 hours and more a day can result in premature and permanent hearing loss
- Higher range and frequencies (high brass and woodwind players are at risk)
- Higher decibel or volume level (mostly mezzo forte and higher)
- Long daily and weekly exposures to high volume (rehearsals, practice, and performances).
- Stress, pressure from performance, exhaustion from long rehearsals, etc
Can Violin Harm Hearing?
Classical instruments do cause hearing damage. The violin with overtones to 1000Hz and a volume up to 95dB does it as well.
Violin sound frequencies
The E string of a violin is tuned to a frequency of 659,3 Hz, which is a high and not recommended sound. Plus on top of that, the string is full of overtones, which reach up to 1000Hz. These numbers are really high and really strain the ear over time.
It's downright obvious that instruments make a lot of sounds and the fact that musicians spend much time with their instruments, hours of practice, and performing all add up to an ear problem over the years. The raw sound of the violin with plenty of overtones is dangerous in addition to that you're playing it pressed up right against your head.
A violin is louder than most people expect. The instrument can output 75 to 95 dB, which for reference is louder than a lawn mover and a tiny bit softer than a nightclub. And that's just the violin on its own, but how about long orchestra concerts that are basically hours of loud sounds? That can be quite harmful to hearing.
Can the Violin Cause Deafness?
Just as the violin has a tendency to cause hearing loss, it can definitely cause deafness, particularly in the left ear. The left ear more directly faces the instrument you play and with the immense volume it produces, the hair cells suffer. If musicians don't protect their hearing while playing the violin they can become deaf towards specific higher frequencies.
How Musicians Can Take Care of Their Hearing
Fortunately, there are many practical solutions available to reduce the impact of a musical instrument on your ears.
Maybe a very obvious solution, but it's effective and earplugs are simple to buy. They’re inexpensive and do a good job at protecting the ears, some nicer ones can even block over 30 dB which is significant enough to put your violin's volume into a safe range.
However, earplugs do muffle the sound a bit, so you might want to insert them only halfway, or use them on the left ear only since it gets damaged the most.
A great option for rock music players and electronic productions is in-ear monitors. However, this is not an option for classical music production. These monitors don't come cheap, but unlike earplugs, they preserve the sound of the instrument.
Even though cotton isn't nearly as good as earplugs, many musicians swear by this solution, since it doesn't muffle the sound of the instrument. If you choose to use cotton, it's important to use a good quantity of it if you want an acceptable result.
A mute is a device that goes over the bridge of your violin to decrease its volume. It's a particularly handy option for practices or if you need to be quiet due to neighbors or roommates. Mutes come in many different styles, different kinds of performing and practicing, and varying degrees of sound dampening.
Plexiglass shields are put between individual players in a performance setting. It doesn't actually make any difference between you and your instrument, but it does reduce the sound of fellow players. This might seem like a useless solution, but nonetheless, the difference between hearing just your instrument and a whole array of others is radical for your ears.
In the long run, paying attention to the sign of hearing loss and taking that under control can have a profound effect on the life of a musician. Musicians, by the nature of their work, tend to have issues with hearing. Knowing how to recognize problems in the early stages and taking quick actions will result in better health and a lasting successful career.