skip to main content

This article is republished with permission from M Magazine by PRS for Music.

For those working in the music industry, tinnitus poses a severe risk to performing, career prospects and mental health.There are scant few certainties when it comes to working in the music industry – but regular exposure to loud music is practically guaranteed.

Unfortunately, the nature of such work can also be a gateway to developing tinnitus, the hearing condition where high-pitched noises – such as whining, buzzing, roaring, whistling or humming - circle around inside your head for minutes, hours and even days on end.

1.5 million people in the UK experience severe symptons of tinnitus 

According to Tinnitus UK – who estimate that 7.6m people in the UK are affected by tinnitus (with 1.5m of them experiencing severe symptoms) – the most common preventable cause of tinnitus is noise exposure, with symptoms ranging from manageable to life-changing depending on how badly your ears have been damaged.

Musicians in particular are at risk. The constant exposure to loud speakers, amps and headphones means they are four times more likely to develop noise-induced hearing loss than the general public, and 57 percent more likely to develop tinnitus (via Hearing Health Foundation).

Young arab man musician playing piano keyboard at music studio
The constant exposure to loud speakers, amps and headphones means musicians are four times more likely to develop noise-induced hearing loss than the general public. Image credit: Shutterstock.

“I thought that whistling sound in my ears was just a sign of a good night”

I think anyone who works, or has worked, in nightclubs would most likely suffer in some way Thomas Gandey, a Brighton-born DJ, musician and producer whose workplace ranges from basement nightclubs to vast arena tours, tells M. Growing up in the free party scene, Gandey thought that whistling [sound] in my ears was just a sign of a good night.

At the time, I thought everyone had it, he recalls. I remember saying to a mate, Can you hear that? and they thought I’d lost the plot as they couldn’t hear what I could.

That carefree attitude towards exposure to dangerous noise levels is still present among many young adults today. A 2017 study which surveyed 28 adults aged between 18 and 35 can be best summarised by its alarming title: 'There are more important things to worry about’.

In your 20s you think, Ah, it’s a long time off 'til I’m in my 40s. But you can’t think like that, says Cosmic Ears’ Business Director Mike Bufton, whose company manufactures moulded ear plugs and in-ear monitors (IEMs) for such acts as Arctic Monkeys.

If you’re in loud environments regularly and don’t protect your hearing, early-onset hearing loss will happen and there’s a high possibility you will develop tinnitus. There's no cure for it, either. 

Protect your hearing with the Musicians' Hearing Health Scheme

Access musician-specialist audiologists and bespoke hearing protection at an affordable price.

Hundreds of MU members from all over the UK use the Musicians' Hearing Health Scheme every year.

Musicians' Hearing Health Scheme

The social and psychological impact can be life-changing

For those who suffer from tinnitus, it can often be the only thing they can think about, which can lead to severe and life-shattering consequences. Inspiral Carpets drummer Craig Gill took his own life in 2016 after suffering from 'unbearable' tinnitus for over 20 years. Clint Boon, Inspiral Carpets keyboardist and Craig’s lifelong friend, has since become an advocate for tinnitus awareness.

Back in the 80s, you’d be seen as weak if you put ear plugs in at a gig says Clint. As musicians, our collective mentality has been to ‘turn it up to 11’ for the last 50-60 years. Looking back, if Craig had been wearing ear plugs and protection from day one, he probably wouldn’t have taken his own life. 

Ex-Smoove & Turrell drummer Lloyd Croft is also heavily affected by tinnitus, with the condition playing a big role in his decision to walk away from his music career. [While performing], some nights I experienced ringing so loud that I would have to sing a different pitch for my mind to focus on in order for [the ringing] to subside. It causes a lot of anxiety, and prevents you from falling asleep”. 

Solo musician Isobel Anderson, who first started experiencing symptoms of tinnitus in 2012, has found that the condition has affected every aspect of my life in some way.

It’s not just the practical implications of the resulting hearing loss or tinnitus; the social and psychological impact can be life-changing, she explains. While lots of people live happy, fulfilled lives with a variety of hearing-related conditions, hearing health isn’t something we should take for granted.

Sound induced tinnitus

There are two sets of hair cells in the cochlea in your inner ear: one amplifies sound, while the other relays sensory information to the brain. If you keep aggravating them they get worn down, and if both are damaged, it can affect your hearing and how the brain gets its sensory information.

When a tinnitus sufferer experiences a ringing noise, that is the brain searching and failing to find the missing information, explains Simon Baker, a successful DJ and producer who retrained as a craniosacral therapist after experiencing tinnitus. There are many ways tinnitus can start: sound-induced is just one of them. The majority of my clients have no hearing loss: so why and how does the ring happen? Mostly due to stress and increased activity in the body, which can in turn amplify the auditory system.

Tinnitus, Simon adds, can be exacerbated by our central nervous system: When you’re in a state of stress or your fight or flight response is triggered, it causes you to become hyper-sensitive to nervous impulses that you normally wouldn’t pick up”. 

Other ways tinnitus can start 

As well as stress, compacted earwax can cause and contribute to tinnitus symptoms. Isobel experienced temporary hearing loss due to blocked earwax and an ear infection, which then led to tinnitus. It was nothing short of traumatic, she says now. The sheer volume of the noise inside my head, and the insomnia and fear that accompanied it, was devastating. I don’t think I’ll ever take my hearing health for granted ever again”. 

Lloyd, meanwhile, says that nicotine and alcohol make my tinnitus twice as bad, while musician Rosalie Cunningham told The Guardian in 2021 that her symptoms deteriorated after contracting COVID, making her terrified something will happen on stage and I won’t know what to do.

Moulded ear plugs and IEMs have revolutionised how performing artists can protect their ears

There is hope, though. Simon says he has found success using his holistic approach: This soothes the nervous system, helping bring people out of a fight or flight response or red-alert mode. When this happens on a regular basis, the tinnitus symptoms can start to back off.

Thomas has found similar success by implementing a healthy diet, regular exercise and mindfulness practices to his daily life. For many, though, tinnitus becomes something you learn to live with and manage. I've worked a lot quieter in the studio for many years now, Thomas tells M. I don’t produce using earphones as there’s no diffusion of sound, and I take a couple of months off every winter to properly give my ears a rest.

Lloyd agrees with this approach: It’s all about prevention. During lockdown, I noticed a massive reduction in how bad it was, but the reality is it will never go away. I can be at a meeting or attending a course, struggling to hear the person delivering the session and relying on lip-reading to get me through it”.

While Clint says it’s too late for my generation to take action, the younger generation can start now: ear plugs kill off the dangerous sound waves: you can still hear the music, but it’s not dangerously loud any more”. 

As well as being aware of how long you’ve been exposed to loud music, advances in technology like moulded ear plugs and IEMs have revolutionised how performing artists can protect their ears while getting better on-stage sound at the same time. We are now 20 times better than the last time [Inspiral Carpets] toured, as we can hear everything with our IEMs, Clint adds. It’s hard to put into words how amazing they are”. 

It’s so important to talk about how it's affecting you

But while technology has given us the tools to prevent loud noise-induced tinnitus like never before, it’s still up to the individual to make the change. There is no divide between men and women when it comes to tinnitus: it affects everyone,” Mike warns. But there may well be a correlation between the typical ‘macho man’ not opening up and talking about things like tinnitus, which may well be affecting them mentally. It’s so important to talk about how it's affecting you”. 

Many of the artists we spoke to for this piece said that they’re seeing more of their peers and support staff wearing ear plugs at shows. But there’s still more to do, as Clint points out: Tinnitus destroyed Craig’s life: he took his life because of tinnitus. A lot of musicians and DJs wear ear plugs now - and I see it in the crowd as well, but it’s not the majority”.

Until it is, tinnitus will continue to be a problem for people across the music industry.

Get advice and support on mental health and wellbeing

Discover a wealth of advice and resources to help musicians to look after their mental health and wellbeing.

Get advice and support on mental health and wellbeing

Continue reading

Yellow headphones on yellow background. Listening concept.

The Emotional Side of Music Making: Heidi Fardell Explores One-to-One Music Teaching

MU Member Heidi Fardell has been a one-to-one instrumental tutor for over 20 years. Drawing on her own experiences, she shares why music lessons can often invite conversations on health and wellbeing, and how to listen and recognise when students may need signposting to additional support.

Published: 04 July 2024

Read more about The Emotional Side of Music Making: Heidi Fardell Explores One-to-One Music Teaching
An almost silhouette of a women from behind in front of a stage in the spotlight.

Gabriella Di Laccio and the Donne Foundation: Championing Women in Music

This Women’s History Month we share a powerful guest blog from an award-winning soprano, recording artist, public speaker, curator and activist. Meet Gabriella Di Laccio, the unstoppable force behind Donne, Women in Music - a charitable foundation which is breaking records and influencing change.

Published: 14 March 2024

Read more about Gabriella Di Laccio and the Donne Foundation: Championing Women in Music