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the sound of healing


story extras
Writer's note: Musician view

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Texas Center for Music and Medicine

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Trading Places
Changing the Game
Overcoming the Jitters
Radio Voices


UNT researchers Miriam Henoch and Kris Chesky


At least, he thinks he does.

But a battery of sophisticated, highly sensitive hearing tests shows that the 20-year-old double bass player has slight hearing loss in high frequencies.

Similar tests on a handful of other student musicians reveal varying degrees of the same result, according to Miriam Henoch, audiologist and UNT associate professor of speech and hearing sciences.

"Most of the students we are seeing have no significant losses, but some have trace losses in high frequencies, which can be a warning sign," she says.


Music and medicine

Wigton and other College of Music students are participating in a study that Henoch and Kris Chesky, UNT research assistant professor, are conducting through the Texas Center for Music and Medicine.

The center is a collaborative effort among faculty at UNT and the UNT Health Science Center at Fort Worth who are concerned with all health issues related to musicians. Chesky and Dr. Bernard Rubin, chief of rheumatology at the Health Science Center, are the co-directors.

Rubin is the medical director and is in charge of the medical clinic, which is in the Health Science Center's Patient Care Center. Although the researchers are currently focusing on musicians, they may expand services to all performing artists. Rubin, as a rheumatologist, is interested in overuse syndromes (for example, carpal tunnel syndrome) and is involved in much of the research related to musculoskeletal issues.

Chesky serves as the center's director of research and education. Currently, musicians and hearing are an important aspect of that research. It is funded in part by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the organization that awards the Grammys.

In fact, Chesky and Henoch are working on a series of studies that will lay the groundwork for developing nationally recognized standards of allowable noise levels for musicians.

"When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration set standards for sound exposures in work environments, it completely overlooked the music profession," Chesky says.

"And right now, the only music groups really being studied are rock bands and orchestras," he says. "So the majority of working musicians, including the thousands of serious student musicians who practice for hours and play gigs almost every day of the week, are disregarded."

By the very nature of what they do, musicians could be putting their hearing at risk. And, since the ability to hear well is critical to being able to perform well, it is particularly important that musicians protect their hearing.


Instrumental studies

The center's first studies have measured sound in relation to musicians in various ways. One examines ear-canal resonance as a factor in music-induced hearing loss, and another considers the implications for musicians of hearing loss and aging.

Each study is contributing data that will be used to establish the allowable standards.

"There is a lot of background work that has to be done to determine accurately what musicians experience," Henoch says.

Two other studies look more directly at musicians' sound exposure.

The first, an instrument-specific report of hearing loss, compiles data gathered from more than 3,000 professional musicians. It shows the percentage of performers by instrument that report a perceived hearing loss.

The second, which describes sound exposure experienced by a college jazz band ensemble, directly compares the sound exposures of college musicians to the risk criteria outlined by OSHA.

"The comparisons are not completely translatable because a musician does not spend eight straight hours performing in the same way that a construction worker is exposed to the sounds of a jackhammer all day," Chesky says.

"However, they are a valid starting point, and what we found shows definite cause for continuing the studies," he says.

Sound-level measurements were taken during rehearsals of one of UNT's jazz ensembles over a three-day period. The results show that during the 50-minute rehearsal, some players were exposed to 50 percent of their daily noise allowance.

When the levels were adjusted for a three-hour exposure, some of the performers exceeded 100 percent of the allowable noise dose. And when translated to eight hours, every performer exceeded 100 percent, with some exceeding 300 percent of allowable levels.

The performer exposed to the loudest level was the lead trombone player, who stands in front of the lead trumpet player. The next most affected player was the lead alto saxophonist, who sits in front of the lead trombone.

The instrumentalists with the least exposure were in the rhythm section, with the string bass performer recording the lowest level of exposure.


Turning down the volume

Wigton plays string bass in the band that was measured, and he says that he doesn't think the noise levels during rehearsals are excessive.

"We can get pretty loud at times when everything is clicking and the music's really hot, but compared to the sound in the gigs I play outside of school, the jazz band rehearsals are mild," he says.

However, the preliminary data was enough for Chesky to begin education efforts with UNT's musicians. Students are being told about appropriate sound levels and advised of ways they can reduce the risk of hearing damage.

And Wigton was concerned enough to volunteer for one of the center's studies that will be measuring the effectiveness of musicians' earplugs. The manufacturers of the plugs, which are made specifically for musicians, say they lower decibel levels without muting the range of sound heard.

"I wanted to participate because I know my hearing is important, and I sometimes have ringing in my ears after particularly long days at school and some gigs," Wigton says.

According to Henoch, the ringing is an indication of a temporary threshold shift in effect, a temporary hearing loss. If the ringing persists for an extended period of time, it may indicate a permanent threshold shift, which means irreversible damage has occurred.

Musicians' earplugs are supposed to decrease noise levels by 15 decibels, which could make a significant difference, Henoch says. But the plugs will only help if they truly do preserve the quality of sound while lowering the quantity, because they can only work if musicians wear them, and the plugs won't be used if they distort the sound.

"Part of our goal in conducting this research is to educate musicians about how to protect themselves and preserve their health," she says. "And if we want to recommend that musicians wear earplugs to lower their sound exposure, then we have to make sure the plugs really work."

Because, she points out, the purpose of the center and its research is to help.

"We know that advising musicians not to perform is not a viable option," Chesky says.

"And right now, that's what doctors recommend when a musician shows signs of hearing loss. We want to figure out real ways to let them keep performing while staying healthy at the same time."

For more information about the Texas Center for Music and Medicine and its research, visit its web site at

To make an appointment at the clinic, call (817) 735-5442.


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