Banjos vs. Human Ears

can banjos cause hearing loss or damage your hearing?

Because of the "coping with tinnitus" articles on the "other side" of this website, every now and then I get an email from someone asking me about their ears ringing after a good workout on the banjo and some folks were worried about hearing damage. Thanks for asking, it's pretty relevant in the banjo world as they are one of the loudest acoustical instruments around. In both the U.S. and Canada the government folks who look after safety in the work place compel employers to make employees wear hearing protection when sound levels exceed 90 dBA - a volume many high end banjos can beat pants down, so let's keep that number in mind and take a closer look. Oh, this 90 dBA number is a number "they" have picked as a "safe" volume level - there are those who disagree...

Late breaking news: the Ontario government has announced that the "safe" volume level will be reduced to 85 dBA starting in July 2007.

Some of the "better" banjos can produce some pretty impressive sound volumes - while laying into the strings real good, I've clocked some of them at around 93~94 dBA when I got all wound up. The loudest I've ever heard was an archtop cranking out an incredible 98 dBA. Keep in mind, the decibel numbers are supposed to be measured at a distance of 1 meter (a smidgen over 3 feet) from the sound source, using the A weighted scale. In other words, the sound level meter is pointed towards the banjo and therefore measures the sound that is projected away from the banjo. All in all, your ears might be doing some serious overtime while playing banjo. Sometimes, when things get too much, your ears could be ringing for a while. If it fades away when you're done playing, whether after a few minutes or after an hour or two, then it is not permanent. It's actually quite common and there's even a proper medical name for it: disco tinnitus (yeah, really eh...). If this applies to you then you might wanna take your time reading this article and maybe take some of my ramblings to heart - they're on a for-what-ever-it's-worth basis.

It isn't very common to have anyone sit only one meter away from you to listen to you play so for practical purposes, what we need to consider is the player's banjo-to-ear distance. For most banjoeys this is approximately 30 to 60 cm (1 to 2 feet) - considerably closer than the 1 meter standard measuring distance. Fortunately of course, most of the sound is directed away from the banjo player because of the resonator (if your banjo has one) directs the sound away from you and/or is partially absorbed by clothing (and/or beer bellies...) so not all of the decibels reach your ear. Or do they..?

So how many decibels could you expect to actually reach your ear? Time to put a fresh battery into Mr. Soundlevel meter and find out. For the first reading the meter at mid-banjo level, pointing it straight at the banjo, "facing" at a measured distance of one meter. For the second number set the meter was still at 1 meter distance, but spun around and facing AWAY from the banjo. The third number set was at ear level making sure the microphone pointed horizontally so it could pick up the sound at approximately the same angle your ears would, banjo to ear ("B2E"). Using the A weighting and slow response settings for 'average' volume levels at a distance of 1 meter, here are the numbers I produced while picking a tune at a comfortable pace, kinda leaning the strings using one of my favourite bridges and waddaya know, I even wore my finger picks (for a change...) for this special occasion:

Banjo Peak facing Average facing Peak Away Average Away Peak B2E Average B2E
Fender Leo

94

83 89 80

97

84
Ode, model D

97

85 92 82

96

86

Means to me, hmmm, something to be said for not going full throttle all the time, certainly a greater number of decibels reaching my ears than I had expected... Sure showed me that a sufficient number of decibels survived clothing absorbtion etc. Keep in mind, coming up with these numbers didn't require a great deal of experimenting and the results can easily be duplicated by anyone who knows how to work the on/off switch of a sound level meter.

A couple of things I'd be concerned about and you should take care to avoid: at a sit-down jam when there aren't not enough chairs, some players stand directly behind the musicians sitting down and play their instrument right into their ears. This is not only really annoying for the folks in front of you but potentially dangerous, especially when the weapon of choice is a banjo. Another one to keep your eye on is when you're doing your stuff to entertain kids. Imagine them sitting at your feet to listen to your doing a 90+ dBA version of the Foggy Mountain Breakdown for them...

When are you at [potential] risk? A good clue is when your ears ring for a while after a hot and heavy picking session. If/when this happens, as it does to a lot of musicians, it's time to put the banjo down for a while and go have yourself a coffee or something - give your ears a bit of rest. When you resume playing, scale down on the volume. Don't pick as hard, turf the picks, whatever.

Immediate danger to a banjoey's ear? Maybe. Maybe not. Be sure to keep an eye on common sense but do realize that the effects of over-exposure to loud sounds are accumulative and the potential for hearing loss could become more than simply a possibility. As well, when your ears ring for a while after playing, the chance of tinnitus ("ringing in the ears") becoming a regular guest in your life dramatically increases. In the tinnitus world, the standard answer to the question "when is loud too loud?" is: when you have to raise your voice to be heard - this simply is a good rule of thumb to be applied by anybody, anytime, anywhere.

What if you have, or you are worried that you might get, hearing loss and/or tinnitus and you are concerned about your banjo playing? This is something you should be discussing with a qualified professional - talk to your family doctor, look up an audiologist in the yellow pages, call your local hearing society in order to get some straight answers that apply to YOU for YOUR case.

If you don't have hearing loss and your ears don't ring, should you still be concerned about it? Hmmm, as long as you keep using common sense there really isn't a whole lot to worry about as the human ear is designed to handle a huge dynamic range of sound and volume. Still though, it sure wouldn't hurt to not always lean on one of them kick-butt banjos too heavily - your ears, and your fellow pickers will appreciate it and if you're still, even in the slightest bit, somewhere in the back of your mind, wondering about it: re-read this parapraph.

Just a few words for those of you who have tinnitus, and especially for those of you who have hyperacusis, if playing the banjo is a problem for you right now rest assured that you do not need to stop playing banjo - there are plenty of ways to make banjoing T & HA friendly. If you're stuck on being a max volume Earl wannabe and nothing else will do, yeah, I can see you might have a problem. However, if you love music, and you have an open mind, you have several options:

  • loose the finger picks and use your bare fingers instead
  • use a mute
  • put a rubber band under the strings on top the bridge
  • stuff socks, towels, whatever in the resonator
  • play less loud
  • use earplugs
  • order custom fit musicians earplugs from any audiologist (a must for pro musicians)
  • change your reportoire - play melodious stuff instead of FMB
  • learn clawhammer/frailing
  • play a Goodtime or whatever soft-spoken banjo
  • start composing
  • start tabbing your own arrangements

Anyway, summing it up: based on the volume levels recorded during this simple test I can only conclude that you should wear hearing protection while playing loudly on loud banjos.

 
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