What Happens to Your Hearing at a Music Festival?

If you're going to a concert, you're going to need some earplugs. Vadim Ponomarenko/Shutterstock

If you're a music lover, then you probably love a good music festival. Maybe you go to one or two festivals a year, or maybe you're the type whose lifestyle revolves around the festival circuit.

Festivals are a great place to see some of your favorite bands and discover new artists. But in addition to good times and good tunes, music festivals also offer some not-so-good vibrations — vibrations that can cause significant hearing damage if you don't take precautions.

Music festival popularity and hearing loss

Music festivals have seen a big spike in popularity in the last couple of years. In 2015, Nielsen reported that roughly 32 million people attended at least one music festival a year, that a third of festival goers attend multiple festivals a year, and that they travel an average of 903 miles to their festival of choice. In 2017, the Coachella music festival brought in $114 million. That's the second highest-grossing music festival behind the 2016 Desert Trip festival in California, which took in $160 million over two weekends, reports Billboard.

While this means more people are enjoying live music over the course of a day or a weekend, it also means more people are making themselves more vulnerable to noise-induced hearing loss.

In fact, live concerts have played a large part in the rise of noise-induced hearing loss over the past few decades for music fans and musicians alike, reports Audicus.

How loud is too loud?

decibel measurement
A concert can produce decibel levels twice as high as a normal conversation. Olivier Le Moal/Shutterstock

How loud is a live concert in comparison to normal sounds levels?

The decibel level of a normal conversation is roughly 40 to 60 decibels. A live concert, however, is 110 to 120 decibels. The decibel level of a concert can reach as high as 140 if you're standing right in front of the speakers, reports Medline Plus.

It may not seem as if a doubling in decibel levels from a regular chat to a live concert is that big of a deal, but an examination of the decibel levels of other day-to-day sounds puts this into perspective.

Consistent exposure to noise levels that reach 85 decibels is considered harmful, reports Dangerous Decibels. The noise of heavy traffic is 85 decibels, the roaring and revving of a motorcycle is 95 decibels, sirens are as loud as 120 decibels, and the decibel level of firearms and fireworks are 150, reports the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).

So if you spend a day at a music festival it's almost the equivalent of listening to the sound of sirens at close range for that time frame; you've already surpassed the sonic assault of listening to a motorcycle for hours on end, and you aren't too far from listening to an all-day fireworks display.

If you're a serial festival goer, you're doing this to your ears for a total of a few weeks or months of the year.

While most people probably find the sweet sounds of music to be more pleasing than a sonorous shootout, it seems a little crazy that we'd subject ourselves to such extreme sound levels.

The damage done

Conceptual image about human hearing
The hair cells of the cochlea are where the damage is done. Tatiana Shepelev/Shutterstock

It's clear an all-day festival is going to take a toll on your hearing (at least temporarily), but it's important to know what's actually happening to your ears.

"Attending one very loud all-day concert can affect your hearing either temporarily or permanently," Dr. Julie Glick, audiologist and founder of Musicians Hearing Solutions tells MNN.

"Excessive noise exposure may cause damage to the hair cells of the sensory organ of hearing called the cochlea. We probably have all experienced at some point or another noticeably diminished hearing and/or ringing in the ears (tinnitus) after attending a show or loud event. This decrease in hearing and/or ringing can return to pre-show levels or disappear within a few days, and this is called a temporary threshold shift in hearing. The micro-sized hair cells that line the cochlea are essentially overstimulated and flattened or damaged and sometimes return back to normal, however it is not guaranteed. A one-time episode of very loud sound can also permanently damage these hair cells and/or the temporary damaging of the hair cells over and over again can cause permanent loss," says Glick.

Even though we're all susceptible to hearing damage at a music festival, it's interesting to note that to a certain extent, the damage "depends on the individual," Dr. Darius Kohan tells MNN. "If you already have a little bit of hearing loss when you get there, and if you're older you're less likely to be tolerant of the loud noise. Somebody who's young has more plasticity to their system [and] they can probably bounce back faster."

But, just because some people are more vulnerable to hearing damage, no one is immune to the effects of loud music, so everyone should take precautions.

For any festival, there's the issue of "how loud the music is and how close you are to the speakers or the performers," says Kohan.

"It's all about duration and intensity," says Glick. "The longer you are in a loud environment or listening to music say on your earphones even, the lower it should be to be considered safe."

And don't forget that "our ears were not built for excessively loud amplified sound," says Glick.

While the feeling we get from hearing those perfect melodies and harmonies feels great, the extreme volume doesn't sit well with our eardrums.

Recent research

One study published in the journal Noise & Health in 2016 showed that not all music festivals organizers keep the safety of their attendees' eardrums in mind.

The study looked at two different Norwegian music festivals, where the noise guidelines were determined by local Norwegian authorities and the World Health Organization. Only one of the festivals' sound levels were regulated by the guidelines set by Norwegian authorities, and neither festival met the standards set by Norwegian authorities or the World Health Organization.

In June 2018, a study that examined noise-induced hearing loss connected to music festivals was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The authors of the study found that male festival goers who didn't use earplugs and who also used alcohol or drugs at a music festival were more likely to encounter temporary noise-induced hearing loss.

The doctors' view of the problem

ear exam
More and more younger patients are going to the doctor for noise-induced hearing loss. Bangkoker/Shutterstock

It's not just studies that show a correlation between music festivals and hearing loss. More people are going to the doctor to address noise-induced hearing loss, and many of these patients are younger.

"I have many patients who report hearing loss and tinnitus in one or both ears following excessive exposure to loud music in the setting of music festivals, personal music devices, gyms, clubs, even loud restaurants. The damage to the hair cells in the inner ear (the cochlea) is cumulative," says Kohan.

And while the younger generation might not proactively be seeking out medical professionals, they're still showing up — just not of their own accord.

For the most part, when younger people come to see Kohan about hearing issues, "It's just because ... their family brings them over and says 'my son and daughter [went to a concert] and weren't careful [...] now there's noise in their ear, they can't hear so well'," he says

"People don't tend to notice this loss at first if it is mild, but they do notice it when it is severe when they have trouble understanding what people are saying and by then it is too late," says Glick. "The loss is sneaky [...] you may not notice it at first. You are still hearing, however the clarity of sound is the first thing that is affected and again is mainly noticed when that loss is more severe so it is very important to take preventative measures such as wearing earplugs."

Taking the proper precautions

So, does this mean you should sacrifice your love of live music and avoid music festivals all together? Not necessarily, but you should make an effort to better care for your eardrums.

"If you do use noise protection — in other words with ear plugs — note again that you can still enjoy the music, and don't have to be losing any hearing," says Kohan.

"If you are finding yourself in these situations [excessively loud environments, concerts, festivals] the best thing you can do for yourself is to invest in good earplugs," Glick explains. "If you are in loud environments often, you should have an annual hearing evaluation to monitor your hearing. Like anything else in life, it is always better to know and be informed than not."

So that old adage "If it's too loud, you're too old" doesn't really apply. These days, if it's too loud, well, then it just is — and you should probably find some good earplugs.