Hearing Loss & The Irony Of The Entertainment Business

“Goodbye yellow brick road,” Elton John belted out the title song of his final concert tour. My family rarely attends concerts — given my hearing loss I worry about damaging it further — but we are big Elton John fans and could not bear to miss our last chance to see him perform live. The sold out show in Madison Square Garden was outstanding with the crowd singing along to its favorite oldies but goodies. My family and I were able to enjoy the performance because we came prepared with hearing protection and the knowledge of how to use it. You can read my tips for attending a concert in my article, “How To Enjoy a Concert Safely When You Have Hearing Loss.”

As we made our way to our seats, the irony dawned on me. We were not allowed to smoke, to bring in outside food or drink, or even use caps on our plastic water bottles (I guess they think people will throw them?!?), but we could blast our ears with 110 decibel sound for 3 hours without any rules stating otherwise. There was not even a posted sign suggesting we protect our hearing with earplugs or ear muffs. Something seemed wrong with that.

I began my pre-show preparations. I turned my in-the-ear hearing aids to sleep mode and donned my noise-cancelling headphones, creating a double barrier against the noise. For now I left the noise-cancelling feature turned off, saving that for the show.

I encouraged my family to do the same, but they were reluctant. “It’s not that loud right now,” one of my teenage children said. “But it will be when it starts,” I warned, “you will be glad you were set up in advance.” Being teenagers, they did not listen, but I have never seen two people whip on their hearing protection faster than when the concert started with a literal bang as Bennie and the Jets boomed onto the stage.

Below is a screenshot of my iPhone decibel reader app during the show. It’s A Noisy Planet, a program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), warns that sounds between 94 and 110 decibels can damage your hearing in as few as 15 minutes of exposure. At the concert, the noise registered more than 105 decibels with an average level of 103 decibels and a maximum level of 112 decibels, all dangerous levels. Check out It’s A Noisy Planet’s informative bookmark to see safe listening times for various types of sounds.

Later that week we saw the movie A Star Is Born, featuring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. It was a tragic and beautiful film about love, loss and the music business. Most interesting to me was the subplot of hearing loss and tinnitus underlying the story. Both issues seemed to be major contributors to the main character’s alcoholism and life challenges.

It was encouraging to see a leading character in a movie openly discuss hearing loss, visit an audiologist, and suffer through bouts of tinnitus, all of which help raise awareness of these important issues. But, again, the irony was not lost on me, as the drama played out on the screen at an unsafe 90 decibels. I always bring my noise-cancelling headphones to the movies, so I was prepared, but I felt sorry for the others in the theater who were doing possible damage to their hearing as they watched a story demonstrating the imperative need to protect it.

Readers, why aren’t entertainment venues doing more to promote safe listening levels?

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21 thoughts on “Hearing Loss & The Irony Of The Entertainment Business

  1. I have complained at theaters about the volume, and am routinely assured that it is kept at the prescribed 80 dB. My device disagrees. Moreover, there is a marked difference between the volume of the commercials and previews and that of the featured film. I wonder which one they measure themselves by.

    • The person telling you that the sound is kept at 80 dB is wrong. I am an audiologist and film sound engineer, and the average dialogue levels of a properly mixed film are 85 dBA, leaving 20 dB of headroom for louder sounds. And let’s be honest here, Hollywood films with incessant musical scores often “live” in headroom, i.e., the sound is often constantly above 85 dB.

      The best is to bring some high fidelity earplugs with low attenuation, like a musician’s earplug with the 9 dB Etymotic filter. It’ll shave off enough to keep your ears safe without sacrificing sound quality.

      You can also sit more towards the back of the theater, and even ask a staff member to turn it down.

  2. No caps on plastic water bottles because you could throw the full (closed) bottle, which can do quite some damage, especially from higher levels.

  3. I will be attending The Elton concert in Louisville tonight! I plan on taking my Bose noise canceling headphones. I have good control with them at worship services and the movie theatre. I purchased seats off to the left side of the stage. We’ll see if that was a good idea or a bad one! 🙂 I’ll report back…

  4. You said: “Readers, why aren’t entertainment venues doing more to promote safe listening levels?” Well, Shari, IMHO, the entertainment industry is selling the thrill not the actual music or story or whatever. When you enter an entertainment venue and the sound rattles your guts like a rollercoaster you remember that not the nuance of the art or performance. For a while, young undamaged ears can detect the gentle overtones in the loud music then after the damage sets in all you are left with is the raw physical affront of sheer noise. That’s what they are selling. And the public is buying it. So it’s money. I apologize for being so cynical. I could, of course, be wrong but i fear I’m not. Until there is a financial penalty for exceeding sound levels it isn’t going to stop. We must keep advocating against noise but producing noise must become unprofitable as well.

  5. First of all, I am jealous that you got to see Elton! Some of my all time favorite songs growing up were by him.

    As far as getting the Entertainment industry to do something, maybe it will take some lobbying and support from some big name musicians who have lost some of their hearing (Townsend, Clapton, Huey Lewis). I am sure there are more. Teenagers don’t want to listen to mom and dad but they certainly think anything coming out of the mouths of star entertainers is the gospel truth. We probably need a combination of the old stars and new ones like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran to sign on to a campaign by Noisy Planet.

  6. I don’t know if this organization is still in existence, but they did exhibit at national SHHH/HLAA conventions several years ago. Kathy Peck gave a couple of interesting programs. I recall the Pete Townsend was involved. I agree, this issue is huge. Somehow, some way more emphasis should be placed on preventing hearing loss. The problem is: Somebody or a group of somebodies has to organize it and follow through. It’s amazing that kids in high school bands are not required to use hearing protection. They practice in band rooms in schools that are often enclosed. Tons of reverberation and tons of loud noise. People don’t think about this issue until they are affected by the hearing loss it causes.

    Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers- H.E.A.R.


    P.O. Box 460847

    San Francisco, CA 94146
    Voice: 415-773-9590
    E-mail: hear@hearnet.com
    Web site: http://www.hearnet.com

    Educates the public about the real dangers of hearing loss resulting from repeated exposure to excessive noise levels. Offers information about hearing protection, hearing aids, assistive listening devices ear monitor systems, testing and other information about hearing loss and tinnitus. Operates a 24-hour hotline information, referral, and support network services and conducts a hearing screening program in the San Francisco Bay area. Also launches public hearing awareness campaigns, provides programs for schools and seminars, and distributes earplugs to club and concert-goers. Initiated H.E.A.R. affiliates via Hearnet Web sites in other cities worldwide. H.E.A.R. records fundraising CD’s with Public Service Announcements. Sponsorship opportunities available in each program.

  7. I was also going to mention Kathy Peck’s group H.E.A.R. (I love the name of her all-female band: the Contractions.) If you think it’s bad for us in the audience, imagine standing in the middle of the stage night after night. So many musicians have lost their hearing or suffer debilitating tinnitus — including Pete Townsend, Phil Collins, Will.i.am and many many others. Recently a NYTimes critic described the music at a concert as “sounds that punch right into your hearing.” I think he meant it as a positive –unbelievable as that seems.

  8. It’s as if the venues’ motto is ‘louder is always better’. Most people not familiar with hearing loss think we should be able to hear things if they make them louder. How very wrong they are.. Thanks for a great article! Doris Biddix


  9. I went to the same entertainment venue two different nights and even though they were sporting events and would not be mostly talking, I asked for an assisted hearing device. They assured me they had some but after waiting 20 minutes (both nights, not just the first one), they came back with, “they don’t work. Sorry.”

    If I had been in a wheelchair they’d have practically pushed me to a preferred seat. Want to hear better? Sorry can’t help you.

    • It is very frustrating when the devices are not operational. That happened to me at a movie theater recently too. It is important to lodge a formal complaint with the venue if possible. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  10. Also, though slow-to-happen, many musicians DO care about protecting their hearing and the hearing of their audience. Here’s a video of a bunch of said musicians Sensaphonics created for the W.H.O.’s World Hearing Day 2018. (Disclaimer, I’m the audiologist at Sensaphonics : ) https://youtu.be/9ve8LVU1QBU

    However, the advice is usually to wear earplugs, because it’s much more difficult to bring levels down for both cultural (music culture) and technical (e.g. type of speaker array used) reasons. There are calls for quieter restaurants (Soundprint app), so hopefully one day live venues will follow suit.

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