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Expert Tips for Protecting Hearing at Music Festivals This Summer

Summer is the season for outdoor concerts, music festivals, and other live music venues. While these events are a fun way to see live performances, they can produce noise levels high enough to damage hearing.

Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Summerfest are some of the largest and most popular outdoor music events in the United States each spring and summer. Hundreds of thousands flock to these venues to listen to their favorite musicians, party with their friends, and immerse themselves in the music festival experience.

Still, people who attend outdoor festivals, especially multi-day events, may be just as at risk for hearing issues as those attending indoor concerts. For example, a 2016 study found that sound levels measured at music festivals are comparable to those at typical concerts. In addition, festival-goers may be exposed to a much higher total noise dose due to the longer duration of these events.

How loud are outdoor concerts?

Repeated or lengthy exposure to sound levels at or above 85 decibels (dB) can cause noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). While the average sound volume at an outdoor music festival is 90 to 100 dB, levels inside a festival tent could be between 95 to 110 dB or more.

However, according to a Ranker report, a 1976 Valley Stadium performance by The Who had peak noise levels of 126 dB, and a 2009 Kiss concert at the Ottawa Bluesfest — an outdoor festival — produced peak noise levels of 136 decibels.

Dr. Brian Taylor, a Doctor of Audiology and Senior Director of Audiology for Signia tells Healthnews that indoor concerts tend to be more intense because sound bounces in a confined area.

"We know that the intensity level of any live concert often exceeds 100 decibels, which is well above the level that causes hearing [damage] after a brief exposure," Taylor explains. "But 100+ decibels is 100+ decibels regardless of location. The intensity level of the sound where you were seated or spending the majority of your time, regardless of the venue, is all that matters."

Taylor says that some of these venues are so loud they warrant the use of hearing protection.

Brian Taylor Doctor of Audiology
Dr. Brian Taylor

"Loud noise is loud noise, regardless of the music genre," Tayor notes. "Rock concerts get a bad rap, but any style of music can be loud enough to cause damage – I've been to bluegrass and jazz shows that were dangerously loud."

What are the symptoms of hearing damage from a concert?

Music-induced hearing problems are caused by intense sounds damaging the tiny sensory hair cells in the ear. In humans, this damage can result in permanent hearing loss.

Taylor says that many people report tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, and temporary hearing loss after attending a concert or other music event. Other signs of music-induced hearing damage include sound distortion, a decrease in tolerance for sound, or pitch distortion that may sound different in each ear.

Usually, tinnitus and temporary hearing loss subside within a day or two. Healthy, young ears can bounce back from a few exposures of typical intensity (exposures under 110-120 decibels). However, the more shows you go to, the more likely it is that the damage will be permanent.

Dr. Brian Taylor

While some cases of tinnitus or hearing impairment are temporary, Taylor recommends that if these symptoms persist, a person should seek medical attention — via either a hearing test and consultation with an audiologist or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.

How to protect hearing at a music festival

Despite the hearing risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 80% of U.S. adults 18 years or older reported they never or seldom use hearing protection at loud entertainment events.

Nonetheless, Taylor says that the simplest way to prevent hearing damage is to wear devices such as earplugs or earmuffs.

"Plugs that can be rolled up and placed in the ear canal are the easiest and cheapest form of hearing protection. Many venues even give them away for free these days," Taylor explains. "So-called musician's earplugs are a great choice if you want to maintain the fidelity of the music. You can buy a pair of these for around $50 and keep them with you long term to carry to concerts and festivals."

Other strategies to reduce the risk of hearing loss at a concert include:

  • Move away from speakers
  • Avoid loud conversations or shouting to be heard over the music
  • Take periodic listening breaks by leaving the stage area
  • Consider keeping alcohol use to a minimum

In addition, a person should avoid exposure to loud noises for at least one day after attending a concert to allow their hearing to recover.

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