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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 January 2006, 12:24 GMT
White noise
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

While veteran rocker Pete Townshend blames his hearing loss on a lifetime spent using headphones, experts say today's iPod Generation is storing up trouble for the future by listening to music at high volumes. Is this a crisis in the making?

With the notable exception of Morrissey, who enjoyed a phase of appearing with his band the Smiths sporting a hearing aid, deafness has never been very rock and roll.

But all those years of turning the volume up to 11 are coming home to roost for the rock idols of yesteryear.

As lead guitarist with the Who, Pete Townshend often seemed dedicated to the art of aural recklessness, smashing his guitars to smithereens while revelling in the ear-splitting shrieks of feedback.

The Who also hit the record books in 1976 as the loudest pop group ever, after a concert which tipped the monitoring equipment at 120 decibels - the equivalent of a pneumatic drill - 50 metres away from the sound system.

Today Townshend is struggling with irreparable hearing loss. But rather than blaming the group's on-stage antics he believes it's down to his years of wearing studio headphones during recording sessions.

The decibel (dB) has been called the 'most misunderstood measurement since the cubit'
The scale is not linear, but logarithmic
So it increases exponentially, although the human ear may not perceive this
A continuous sound at 80dB is 100 times as intense as one at 60dB
The guitarist, 60, says he fears for the "iPod generation" - his intuition tells him "there is terrible trouble ahead".

Others in the music world have also witnessed premature hearing problems. Phil Collins, Neil Young, Sting, Mick Fleetwood and the Beatles producer George Martin have all talked about their hearing problems.

There's even an organisation in the US called Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers.

In the classical world, a third of orchestral musicians suffer hearing loss.

But a far broader concern is not for the hearing of ripened musicians, but, as Townshend himself suggests, the legions of earphone wearing converts to music on the move.

So should we be worried?

Such warnings have an air of familiarity about them for anyone who remembers the first incarnation of the portable music player - the humble old Walkman.

Sony Walkman
The health warnings started with this
Unveiled by Sony in 1979, the Walkman spawned a host of imitators, and health warnings.

The advent of digital music players, with their capacity to hold thousands of songs and play for hours on end, has only increased the lure of listening to music on the go.

Sales of MP3 players soared by 200% in 2005 and the market for headphone entertainment continues to grow with portable video players and handheld games consoles.

But the trend has prompted concern from Britain's leading hearing loss charity, the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (RNID). It found 39% of 18 to 24-year-olds listened to personal music players for at least an hour every day and 42% admitted they thought they had the volume too high.

One post-graduate student who complained of ringing in his ears after four years of heavy gig-going and Walkman-abuse was told by his university doctor he wasn't surprised - they were the biggest group of new cases of tinnitus he had seen in the past decade.

"Bin the headphones and listen to gentle things like BBC Radio Four," he was told.

The risk is further heightened when using headphones in a noisy environment - busy High Streets or clattering trains for example - because listeners tend to crank up the volume to drown out extraneous sounds.

Such behaviour could lead to noise-induced hearing loss, say some experts.

The potential problem lies in the cochlea of the ear, which contains more than 15,000 specialised cells, sometimes called hair cells, that respond to sound vibrations and send signals to the brain.

Tinnitus - a ringing in the ear - can be an early indicator of noise-induced hearing loss
So is loss of hearing at high frequencies
Many sufferers first notice something wrong when they can't distinguish conversation amid background noise
"Each cell is tuned to respond to a different frequency in the sound spectrum," explains audiologist Angela King.

"These can be damaged by high volumes so that initially noises at higher frequencies sound smeary, then you can't hear them at all, and eventually the same happens at lower frequencies."

Under European rules digital music players are limited to a volume of 104 decibels. But that is significantly higher [see fact box above] than the 85-decibel workplace limit, which will shortly be reduced to 80 decibels.

Of course people tend to spend longer at work than listening to their iPods. But the RNID's Susan Duncan says the 85dB limit is a good guide.

"If it's uncomfortable to listen to or you can't hear someone talking at normal volume over the music, then you're listening too loudly," she says. The RNID is running an on-going campaign, called Don't Lose the Music, to highlight the risks.

Part of the problem with noise-induced hearing loss is that the effects may not become apparent for some years. Audiologists agree that despite concerns about personal stereo use in the early 80s, they are not yet seeing patients with such problems.

The Who with Pete Townshend right
Ear-splitting noise was not the only hazard of the day for the Who
"It's a bit too early yet," says Angela King, who thinks the noise damage of loud discos and pubs is more of danger to young people than headphone use.

So what are the warning signs to look out for?

Anyone who has been to a nightclub or noisy concert will know the ear-ringing effect that can last for some time afterwards. It's known as a "temporary threshold shift" and, once in a while, is ok, says Jonathan Parsons, of the British Academy of Audiology.

But if the ears aren't allowed to rest between such bouts, the result could be a loss of hearing in years to come.

And just as technology has created such problems, so it may offer a solution.

This week headphone maker Sennheiser joins the ranks of those offering "sound isolating" earphones for everyday consumers. Derived from the earphones that many performers wear on stage today, they block out extraneous sound so that music can played through them at quieter levels.

Unfortunately, those train passengers responsible for the relentless tinny overspill from their pounding headphones won't be able to hear their fellow passengers' collective sigh of relief.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Having endured the boom, boom, boom from headphone users on trains, I always wondered why they had them turned up so loud. The same is true on aeroplanes - you cannot hear the dialogue in the in-flight films without turning the volume right up. The way round this is the noise cancelling headphones. Try these on a train or plane and you can hear crystal clear music without having to turn the volume right up.
Andrew , Newton Le Willows

Just as a factual point, ringing in the ears is not the same thing as a threshold shift, although both can occur temporarily after concerts. Ringing in the ears is called tinnitus. A temporary threshold shift is the effect where sounds seem temporarily dulled, muffled or quieter than normal (the "threshold" in the name is how loud something has to be before you can hear it).
Dr Richard Lanyon, London, UK

Isn't this the same point raised when Walkmans/Discmans etc were so popular? Many European MP3 players have built in artificial volume limits in the software - the US models do not. Presumably US ears are not built stronger?
Dave A, Cheshire

I have listened to Walkmans since my first Mel and Kim album on tape a 'few years' ago. Now at 30 I have trouble hearing speech in noisy places, and cannot hear some higher frequencies. I believe that the high volumes I listened to my music at without any warning on the long term effects was the cause of this damage.
Alastair, UK

Thank you for issuing this as I can now forward it to my two teenage daughters who do have their iPods too high but wont listen to mother - hopefully they will listen to this.
Michelle Nokes, Manchester England

I have worked in a noisy aviation environment for many years and now with hearing problems make a special point to younger people 'It does not matter what the noise comes from - Take care of your ears - do not expose them to loud noises'
Andrew Logan, Exeter

Twenty years of going to heavy metal concerts has affected my hearing. I have a constant ringing sound in my ears which means I can never hear "nothing". There is always a ringing/whistle. Now when I go to see Motorhead I wear earplugs - it is the best mime show in the world!!
Nic McCartney, Fareham, UK

The Who were doing a session, I think in the late 60's, when Keith Moon put too many explosives in his drum kit. When it exploded, just behind Pete, this probably did more damage to his hearing than studio headphones!
Mark Olsen, Exeter

The news didn't surprise me. As part of the conscription process all men in Norway are called in for medical tests, including hearing tests, in their late teens. Time series analysis of the result of these tests shows a marked deterioration in score from the hearing tests a few years after the Walkman hit the market. A medical officer in the navy also once told me that since the appearance of the Walkman are have had noticeably fewer candidates to chose from as sonar operators, as there had been an increase of people with hearing deficiencies at certain specific frequencies. Could be a statistical coincidence but I suspect not.
Sindre Ottesen, London, UK

I work in deafness research, and for a project recently I ended up recording the sound levels produced by my band - the short term peak came out at something close to 130dB, though the more reliable figures gave 199.5. Somewhat worrying as the whole band thought it was fairly quiet!
Hugh, Cambridge, UK

Being a subtitler, working in an international multimedia translation company, I work with my headphones on all day. Are there any studies about people that loose their hearing due to work restrictions...? Should these people have some kind of insurance? Is there a specific kind of headphones that would decrease the risks of hearing loss?
Nathalie, London - Hammersmith

As a daily commuter on the Underground system, and an iPod user, music is often drowned out by the squeal of brakes, wheels on the track and general mechanical noise way in excess of music volume. We don't seem to be too worried about this daily attack on our hearing.
Harry S, London

I was a rave MC years back, right up by the bass bins all night. It was great fun but I am paying for it now. The RNID are running a hearing test thing at the moment you do on the phone, I did that and it confirmed that I had hearing loss, which I reckon is from my rave days. It's no joke believe me.
MC NiteShift, London

I'm 20 & have been listening to Various MP3, CD and Tape players for years, always on full volume. I have noticed that after a while my hearing does start to get effected. The effect usually subsides after a while when I stop listening. However I have noticed an increase in the amount of time it takes to stop the longer I listen.
Tom Griffiths, Rugby

Having spent 10 years producing underground dance music in mainly headphones while leaning over a drum machine, and including seven years DJing in the London and Los Angeles club scenes which had an extremely loud and quite often 'poorly set up' distorted monitoring speakers, I think that one of the main reasons for bad ear health is due to the quality of the ear piece. This is because you don't need to have the headphones as loud in order to get the same overall frequency response than you do with cheaper standard headphones. To refine that, "people like bass and you don't get that with cheap headphones" such as the iPod's without cranking them up to the extent in which they are distorting.
Jess Jackson, London England

I've been listening to Walkman's etc for the past 10 years now. I've noticed my ears ringing on a nearly daily basis, I'm 26. I've started to set the volume to a given level and not increase it when walking through areas of loud background noise. I hope that I haven't done too much damage.
Brendan, Belfast

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