Professional musicians understand that they are at a higher risk of hearing loss or tinnitus than people in other occupations. However, they may be unaware of the level of risk and that their hearing may already be challenged at certain frequencies of music.
People can develop NIHL gradually over time due to continued loud noise exposure or from one-time exposure to an extremely loud noise such as a gunshot. For musicians, the condition typically develops gradually as they practice, record music, and play concerts at a loud volume in crowded stadiums.
Unfortunately, NIHL is a permanent condition. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it is preventable, unlike age-related or hereditary hearing loss. Musicians should pay special attention to the frequency of musical notes to determine their degree of hearing loss at different levels.
Understanding Music Frequency and Subsets
The standard audio frequency range starts as low as 20 hertz (Hz) and can go as high as 20,000 Hz. Most humans lack the ability to hear in this entire range, and the range tends to drop at both ends with age.
The relationship between the frequency of music and audio frequency is that the sound frequency doubles with every octave increase. As an example, the lowest hz on a piano is 27 while the highest is 4,186.
Any piece of equipment capable of producing sound creates harmonic frequencies as well. These are higher frequency multiples that play at a lower amplitude.
When a musician plays the A note on the piano at 27 hz, the piano simultaneously produces a 54 hz harmonic sound. Although the sound is twice the hertz level, it plays softer than the A note. The 81 Hz is even quieter than 54 Hz, and this pattern continually repeats itself.
Music Frequency by Subset
Audio frequency divides into the following subsets:
- 16 to 60 Hz is sub-bass, a low musical range produced from instruments such as a bass guitar or upright bass tuba.
- 60 to 250 Hz is bass, which is the normal human speaking voice.
- 250 to 500 Hz is lower midrange. This includes standard brass instruments such as the alto saxophone and mid-range of a clarinet.
- 500 Hz to 2kHz is midrange. The midrange includes high-end fundamental frequencies most instruments produce. The piccolo and violin are common examples.
- 2 to 4 kHz is higher midrange and includes sounds two to four times higher than they would be at the lower midrange.
- 4 to 6 kHz is presence, which describes the harmonics of the piccolo and violin.
- 6 to 20 kHz is brilliance. Sounds at this range are so high-pitched that the human ear interprets them as a whistle or whine.
Understanding these audio frequency ranges and the instruments that produce them is critical. This understanding of the frequency of music helps musicians identify existing issues and further protect their hearing.
The Anatomy of the Ear
The inner part of each ear contains numerous nerve endings, also known as hair cells. When sound comes into the ear, the hair cells convert it to electrical signals and send them to the brain.
The brain then recognizes the signals as sound and interprets it. When a person has NIHL, the tiny hair cells become permanently damaged. Musicians should understand decibel levels in addition to hertz to avoid hearing loss.
What is the Normal Human Hearing Range?
Decibels (dB) measure the softness or loudness of sound. Some people can hear sounds as low as 20 dB, but the pitch of the human voice is 40 to 60 dB.
Musicians performing at a rock concert expose themselves to dB levels ranging from 80 to 120. Those who play directly in front of speakers can take in music as loud as 140 dB.
Musicians can experience either low-frequency or high-frequency hearing loss depending on their exposure to music note frequencies. The lower the Hz, the lower the sound.
Common examples of sounds heard at low frequency include thunder, noise from a lawnmower, and a dog’s bark. Speech sounds containing the letters z, j, or u also fall into the low-frequency range. High-frequency sounds typically include women’s and children’s voices, birds chirping, and speech sounds such as th, s, and f.
Whether a musician develops hearing loss and the degree of the hearing loss depends on the following:
- Length of exposure to loud music
- Distance from the speakers
- Loudness of the music
- Use and type of headphones
- Family history of non-NIHL
- The type of hearing protection used and how often the musician uses it