Hearing (and Making) a Difference - Music and Medicine Week


Photo by Kick the Beat.

Spinal Tap, the heavy metal band from the legendary “Rockumentary” This Is Spinal Tap, is memorable for several reasons: They were the loudest group in the world, their amps went “all the way to eleven,” and they couldn’t hold onto a drummer to save their lives (or their drummers’). Last but not least, they weren’t even a real music group.

The band may have been fictional, but Spinal Tap presented a very real health risk in their stage performances, and not because their drummers kept dying in a string of freak accidents. The most consistent danger they faced was the sheer volume of their music. In a music industry where louder is better and music is meant to melt your face off, too few musicians have stopped to consider the potential harm they are doing to their most valuable asset: their hearing. Repeated exposure to loud music, if unmonitored and unprotected, inevitably leads to hearing damage, loss, and sometimes tinnitus, or the constant ear ringing sound brought on by exposure to extremely loud noises.

Hearing loss happens gradually, especially if you are exposing your ears to loud noises on a regular basis. For professional musicians and avid concert-goers, these conditions are status quo. The intensity of sound pressure levels can be measured in decibels (dBA), and the higher the level is, the less time you should be exposed to it. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is a subdivision of the US Department of Labor dedicated to ensuring a safe work environment for Americans, and one of its duties includes the regulation of extreme noise levels in the workplace. The average 8-hour work day should consist of prolonged exposure to noise levels no louder the 90 dBA, and each additional 5 dBA cuts that amount of time in half.

If the average rock concert reaches levels of 110 dBA, then by OSHA standards, the people at the concert (bouncers, attendees, performers, etc.) should only be exposed to such noise levels for a maximum of 30 minutes. However, 30 minutes is far under the standard for most concerts’ set lists. One especially loud concert might leave you with a ringing in your ears for a few days, but it usually goes away. Yet any combination of unprotected exposure to extreme noise levels can have very real and permanent consequences.

Kathy Peck, the co-founder of H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers), found herself in just that situation when she discovered that her music career was affecting her hearing. She and the other members of her all-girl band, The Contractions, were opening for Duran Duran during the mid-80s on a show being recorded for an MTV Live Series. Shortly after one night of particularly loud, screaming fans and music at the Oakland Coliseum in 1984, Peck knew something was wrong.

“My ears rang for days and then my hearing deteriorated to the point that I could see people’s lips move but not hear their conversation.  It was career ending. I asked everyone I knew, ‘What do I do?’”

Peck’s desire to learn more about her condition came with the realization that, at the time, there was not a wealth of information made public for musicians who might be going through the same hearing issues. “This was back before there was an American Academy of Audiology or a National Institute for Deafness,” she explained. However, there was no lack of interest among musicians and medical experts to find a way to educate and prevent hearing loss. Physician flash gordon, m.d., [sic-ed.] ran a free clinic at the time and as a friend of Peck’s, approached her with the idea of starting a benefit to run a free hearing screening at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic.

“Interviewers were lined up around the block to find out about our mission. There were heavy metal band members hanging out playing pool. It was just a great time,” says Peck. The number of musicians interested in free hearing screenings and connecting with medical professionals made Peck realize that she was on the verge of a revolution in hearing awareness and protection. “I just kept thinking, ‘This needs to be more than a screening program at the Haight. This needs to be more.’”

Attorney John Doyle, who had suffered from hearing impairment since birth, joined the H.E.A.R. board with Peck and gordon to help draw up the papers that would officially start H.E.A.R. as a non-profit organization. Their mission was straightforward: to provide musicians with the proper information and technology to protect and prevent hearing loss and provide them with access to audiologists who volunteer to help. H.E.A.R. provides not only free screenings, but also custom-fit earplugs as well as in-ear monitors for musicians to wear on stage. It wasn’t long before other major players came forward about their own hearing loss in order to throw their support behind H.E.A.R.

A real turning point for the organization was when a mutual friend put Peck in contact with Pete Townshend. The Who guitarist opened up in a 1989 Rolling Stone article about his own hearing loss and gave H.E.A.R. its initial funding to help musicians in similar situations. After that, the media turned its eyes and ears to the grassroots movement in what Peck called “a straight decade of interviews.” As the news of H.E.A.R.’s mission spread through the media, more musicians like Ted Nugent, Lars Ulrich of Metallica, and even Spinal Tap came forward to help record short PSA’s for hearing loss prevention and awareness. In 1991, H.E.A.R. along with Flynner Films produced Can’t Hear You Knocking, a documentary packed with star-studded support from Ray Charles, Meat Loaf, and Huey Lewis, as well as Townshend and Nugent.

The support for H.E.A.R. continues to grow, and the organization’s website hearnet.com aims to provide the information and products to all musicians and rockers looking to equip themselves for combating hearing loss, from ready-fit musician’s ear plugs to in-ear monitors (which work instead of heavy, loud on-stage monitors).

Peck also hopes to help the next generation of rockers, saying, “Northeastern invited me to come speak a little while ago and even gave me a key to the University. They’re currently working on setting up a program for hearing conversation with the Berkley School of Music with the help of the audiology department at school. I think it’s essential that among the health programs we give children, that hearing be included among them.”

It’s still an uphill battle convincing people to wear earplugs at a rock show, but with celebrity support and a humorous approach to making the PSAs, Peck believes their campaign will work. H.E.A.R. recently teamed up with MTV at their Spring Break in Cancun to provide earplugs to all of the young people in attendance, and Peck said, “It was a great opportunity for us, because you saw all these kids on camera wearing earplugs!”

Because of H.E.A.R., Peck says, “Musicians know where to go to get help. They reach out to HEAR on a daily basis… A touring band that was in town for the day needing musicians’ earplugs and they all were concerned about their hearing and what to do to protect it.”

As for Peck, her hearing loss was only a stumble in her music career. With the help of surgery and hearing aids, her hearing is slowly coming back after almost a decade with tinnitus. In addition to her position as Executive Director on the H.E.A.R. board, she runs a music publishing site with her husband David and has worked with music producer and composer George Michaelski on A Fierce Green Fire, which premiered this year at Sundance. She is currently working on a book version of H.E.A.R.’s history and mission, tentatively titled, ELEVEN Isn’t Loud Enough: A Generation Coming To Grips With Hearing Loss.