Musicians Earplugs and Hearing Protection For Saxophonists
Protecting your hearing as a saxophone player is VERY important.
On its own, a saxophone is not too loud. When you are playing your sax by yourself, or perhaps with an un-amplified friend on an acoustic guitar or piano for example, again, it is not going to cause any permanent damage.
However, when you start playing your saxophone with a group of people you need to look after your ears.
Please Note that I am NOT a trained audiologist nor a medical practitioner of ANY kind. My experience with hearing protection and hearing loss is purely personal and anecdotal. Please check with your healthcare practitioner and seek your own advice.
Sitting in front of the trumpets and trombones in a Concert Band or Stage Band can get extremely uncomfortable.
Hanging out with drummers, amplified guitarists (who ALWAYS play too loudly), amplified bass players and keyboardists who are trying to compete with the guitars….that is where the irreparable damage can start to occur.
Especially when you need to amplify your saxophone as well, in order to be heard above the guitars/drums/bass/keys/vocals.
So – what can you do ?
There are several options that all come with different pro’s and con’s.
And, like all things in life, usually the more you pay the better the equipment and outcome.
PLEASE NOTE – the rather unique concept of “hearing” your own saxophone involves two separate and distinctly different methods of sound transfer and pick up.
First and most obvious is you use your ears and ear drums to hear your saxophone. Duh !!!
Sound travels out of the bell of your sax, travels through the air and enters your ears like any other sound in the world. Except in space…..because everyone knows that in space, no-one can hear you scream, or your saxophone…..
Second – and significantly less obviously – is that actually you hear a component of the overall sound of your saxophone through your top teeth.
The vibrations of the reed and the mouthpiece transfer through your top teeth and directly into your brain. Ok, so this is the simplified version, but sound travels through physical material (such as teeth) as well as through the air.
Your brain then combines these two separate sound sources and signals and decodes these into the “one” sound that you appear to hear of yourself playing your saxophone.
(Fun fact – Clarinettists potentially have the same issue as saxophonists. They don’t hang out with guitar amps and drum kits very often, but they do sit near the trumpets and trombones).
You need both of these sound sources to play in tune and to “hear” both yourself and the other musicians that you are playing with.
You can’t do anything about hearing your saxophone with your top teeth. It is not “loud” as such and not going to cause any damage to your hearing.
You can, however, significantly alter the overall volume of what actually enters your ear canals and hits your ear drums.
The problem for saxophone players is that these two separate sound collection methods – your ears and your top teeth – compliment each other.
If you cut out the sound going in to your ear drums, then you will hear your saxophone differently. You will play it out of tune. You will play it badly. You will not be able to control your saxophone easily. This is obviously not ideal……
Ear Plugs come in many different sizes, shapes and forms.
Cotton wool does the trick. As does a small wad of crushed and rolled up toilet paper. Well….kind of. These are better than nothing, but only just.
They can form a physical barrier so that sound cannot enter your ear canals. Good !
BUT – they stop everything, much like putting your fingers in your ears. Any sound that does get through will just be a jumbled, muffled sludge of indistinguishable noise. Not good for music listening and playing !
Cheap foam ear plugs from the Chemist / Drug Store / Pharmacist (or even the supermarket or grocery store) are a better idea. These are easy to find and cost $2 – $5.
However, again, they cut out all sound. Great if you are in a factory or working with loud machines or trucks or planes or engines…..not ideal for music.
“Sound” is made up of different “frequencies”.
Think of these frequencies as high pitched sounds and middle pitched sounds and low pitched (deep) sounds.
For example the musical comparison is :
- the screaming guitar solo (and the associated high pitched amplifier or speaker feedback) is made up of high frequencies,
- the singers / vocalists voice is made up of mid ranged frequencies,
- the bass guitar and the kick drum are made up of lower frequencies.
The human ear can only handle “so much noise”.
The total overall loudness of a sound (volume) – especially the high frequencies – is the cause of permanent hearing damage. And a “musical band” – a Rock Band, a Concert Band, a Stage Band – has got more loudness/volume than a human ear can handle.
BUT – as musicians we need to be able to hear ALL frequencies. Especially us saxophone players.
Musicians Ear Plugs
These are often found in music shops that sell guitars, amps, microphones and other “rock n roll” type instruments. They can also be ordered online very easily.
Musicians earplugs range in price from $20-$70 and are a really good compromise between sound quality, cost and overall hearing protection. They have a little “filter” inside them that lets in less of all overall frequencies, but more of some than others. This means that while the overall volume is lowered, you will still be able to hear everything – it will be just a bit quieter !
Check the packaging and labelling. If they mention a reduction of overall volume of 10, or 15, or 20 or more dB (Decibels – a scientific unit of scale and measure of volume), then these will be worth of trying out for yourself. The higher the numerical dB rating, the more sound they stop getting into your head.
These also often come with a little pouch to put in your instrument case or attach to your key ring. They are usually a “one size fits all” concept, or they may come with different sized detachable ear pieces in Small, Medium or Large. They also have varying shapes, styles and colours.
These can take a bit of getting used to. You may need to experiment with getting them in exactly the correct position inside your ear canals.
Earplugs such as these may still make everything sound a bit muffled, depending on the brand and the style. Some are better than others, so you may need to try a couple of different sizes or brands to get the best solution for you and your ears.
Some brands worthy of consideration are : Etymotic EarPeace LiveMus!c Earasers and Alpine (amongst others).
These musicians earplugs are good, and well worth purchasing. They can be great, but given that these earplugs are “generic” and your ear canals are unique, then please don’t give up if your first pair aren’t quite right for what ever reason !
These earplugs are MUCH better than the simple cheap foam ear plugs.
And at this price, you can probably buy a couple of pairs and have one set permanently on your key ring in case you suddenly find yourself at a loud rehearsal or gig – either as a performer or an audience member. And you can have another pair in your saxophone case.
I have a set of these on my key ring “just in case”. My wife keeps a pair in her handbag.
Moulded Musicians Ear Plugs
These can only be purchased from a qualified Audiologist or specialised hearing practitioner. A mould is taken of your ear canals and then the ear plugs are made especially and uniquely for you. These will NOT fit anyone else – only you.
During the manufacturing process a little filter is attached to the rubber ear canal piece. You will most likely have a choice as to what value of dB noise reduction you may want. Discuss your specific needs with your Audiologist, who will be able to advise appropriately.
These behave exactly like turning the volume down on your stereo system.
Good moulded ear plugs custom made for musicians with good filters from a qualified and experienced Audiologist or Hearing Specialist allow all frequencies in – just less of them !
This means that the music you hear is still clear and distinguishable….just quieter !
These offer the best hearing protection possible. As a musician and a saxophone player, you probably go and see your fair share of loud bands and attend loud concerts as an audience member as well as a performer. These moulded musicians earplugs will serve you VERY well in these potentially even louder situations.
I have a pair of custom made moulded musicians ear plugs. And I love them.
They make attending rehearsals, gigs and concerts so much more enjoyable.
They can cost a fair bit. Upwards of $300/$400/$500 or more, depending on several factors – to be discussed with your Audiologist.
You can’t just go and pick some up off a shelf immediately. You need to make an appointment, discuss your specific needs, get the mould taken, then wait a couple of weeks while your new custom made musicians ear plugs are actually made. Then you need another appointment with your Audiologist to pick them up and have them fitted properly.
However, you only get one set of ears.
Once your hearing is damaged, that’s it. There is no cure. It cannot be fixed.
And it gets worse over time as you get older. As a teenager or early twenty something young adult, you most likely feel that you are invincible. Loud gigs are just they way it is, isn’t it ?
However, if you do not take precautions with your hearing, loooooong before you get to be 30 years old, the damage will have been done. And it compounds and gets worse because then you can’t tell if anything is too loud or not, which in turn exaggerates the on-going damage.
So, by the time you reach 40, your ears are always ringing and you can’t hear your young children talking to you in the car. You can’t fully understand what people are saying to you at parties or in noisy restaurants. Your family constantly tells you to turn the television down. You can’t properly hear what people are saying at work, in meetings, or on the phone.
This then leads to not wanting to go to parties, or restaurants, or the pub, or to other crowded places with your friends.
Hearing loss can be upsetting; it can cause social isolation and even depression.
Taking precautions sooner rather than later is VERY important when it comes to musicians and us saxophonists.
If budget allows, and if you either play your saxophone with other, louder musicians, or attend loud gigs or concerts, may I PLEASE suggest that you go and get some good custom made musicians earplugs !! Immediately.
Or at the very least, buy yourself some “standard” ear plugs designed for musicians.
Your ears will thank you.
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