How Musicians' Brains are Different

How Musicians’ Brains are Different

The Effects of a Lifetime Playing Music

Whether in a small dive club or an enormous sold-out venue, the experience of being on stage is a fundamental part of being a professional musician. There is the joy of sharing your music with an audience and the thrill of cheers and applause.

At the same time, musicians are likely to suffer tinnitus and hearing loss from years of exposure to loud sounds. Hazardous levels of sound may cause damage to the inner ear hair cells, which translate sound waves into neural signals that are sent to the brain. A rock concert clocks in at 120 decibels, and over a sustained period of time without proper ear protection, musicians may permanently damage their hearing.


What is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is commonly known as a “ringing of the ears.” It may also sound like whistling, cracking, popping, or a whoosh. There are two kinds: objective (heard by both the tinnitus patient as well as people in close proximity) and subjective (heard only by the person who suffers from tinnitus). Subjective tinnitus is usually linked to hearing loss, whether due to exposure to loud noises or age (presbycusis). Tinnitus increases the risk for depression, stress, and anxiety, as it is a constant companion in most cases.


2014 Study on Tinnitus and Brain Function

A study conducted by Fatima Husain, professor of speech and hearing at the University of Illinois, has revealed new information about how people with tinnitus process sound. In this subject, the test subjects were people with tinnitus and hearing loss, people with tinnitus and no hearing loss, and people with normal hearing abilities. They were asked to respond to different sets of sounds that were organized as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Though Husain and her team predicted that people with tinnitus would experience more irritation with unpleasant sounds (such as a human scream or a fire alarm), they found that negative sounds did not have much of an effect on test subjects with tinnitus. It was determined that due to their experience with tinnitus, the brain had learned new ways to reroute sound signals.

With normal hearing, sound waves enter the ear and their vibrations are translated into neural signals sent to the brain to be recognized as sound. For people with normal hearing, the sound is processed in the amygdala, which attaches an emotional element to the sound.

With musicians who experience tinnitus – and people who experience tinnitus in general – the sounds are processed in the frontal cortex, which allows for an unemotional and more logical processing of sound. In an article with Mic, Husain says, “The sound is taking an alternate route in your brain. You’re able to suppress the attention to your tinnitus, which disengages the emotional component.”


Tips for Musicians to Prevent Tinnitus and Hearing Loss

For musicians who practice and perform regularly, we recommend the use of custom ear protection. Custom musician ear protection often comes with an in-ear monitor as well. Manufacturers have produced musician-specific hearing protection, which are designed to filter out the dangerous decibels while allowing you to hear your music.


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