• From the May 2008 Piping Times.

We are indebted to the Musician’s Union for assistance with this article that also draws on current medical advice available on the internet. Too many pipers nowadays are suffering damage to their hearing through lack of ear protection. We recommend the use of earplugs whenever playing or listening in a confined space.

The sense of hearing is important for anyone considering a piping career yet many continue to practice in unsuitable areas with little regard for this valuable asset, even when it is so easy to ensure its protection.

If at any time you wake up with a continual ringing in your ears you know there is something wrong. You may be developing tinnitus (ringing in the ears) or hyperacusis (hypersensitive hearing) both career threatening conditions. Consult a specialist immediately. Damage to the ears can be irreversible.

The Musician’s Union has issued the following: “It’s not just amplified guitars, basses and sound systems that can give the ears a manic beating. A large proportion of acoustic instruments exceed the health and safety limits in normal play, putting traditional, classical and jazz musicians at risk as well. Brass, violins and even a powerful voice can belt out levels of between 95-120 decibels [pipes are usually round about the 95dB mark – see graphic, below]. It is the cumulative effect of constant exposure at top decibel levels that puts the ears at risk.

“There is a simple way to prevent hearing damage: wear ear protection at concerts and rehearsals. In the past, the only commercial ear plugs available were of yellow foam and these blocked out the vital frequencies you needed to hear. Today good quality ear plugs are widely available at music shops for about £12 to £15 a pair. While cutting down all the frequencies by varying amounts of decibels, depending on brand, they stay in your ears, they’re largely undetectable and they’re reusable so there’s no excuse not to wear them.”

The Musicians’ Union publishes information on hearing protection and the prevention of hearing loss. Safety and Learning Official Pauline Dalby explains: “Eight years ago we introduced a campaign to raise awareness among our professional and semi-professional members. We also work with several music colleges, spreading the word among students on how to protect their hearing to ensure that they have long careers in music. We also produce simple leaflets on protecting your hearing which set out simple ways of avoiding hearing damage.

The Union has been instrumental in obtaining an agreement with the European Parliament that enables the music and entertainment sector to draw up their own Code of Conduct. This contains practical guidelines that accompany the new Control of Noise at Work Regulations which came into force last month [April 2008]. Recognising that most MU members are freelance, a scheme was set up so that members could avail themselves of health surveillance. This includes a system that if any hearing loss or serious condition is detected there is a referral for further medical investigation or an annual call back. You can register for the Musicians’ Hearing Service on 0207 4861053 or 0207 3232076.

Medical facts
Our brains process the sound waves received via our ears and makes determinations that affect speech, balance and hearing. Excess stimulation from sound can overload our nervous system resulting in many negative health symptoms.

Sound waves are collected by our ear canal and passed to the eardrum, which vibrates. The sound waves are then picked up in the inner ear structures where the acoustic nerve connects to the brain. Decibels measure the intensity of sound.

Hearing loss can occur from a single exposure to a loud noise or from repeated exposures. The Environmental Protection Agency has set a standard of 70dB in a 24-hour period as safe. The numbers:

Rustling leaves 10dB
Whisper 30dB
Normal speech 60dB
Television 70dB
Traffic 75-80dB
Blow drier 85dB
Noisy hall 85dB
Classroom 85dB
Stereo 90dB
Bagpipes 90-1 10dB
Power saw 1O0dB
Fire cracker 115-120dB
Rock concert 120 dB
Gunshot/train/jet 150dB

Wear ear plugs in very noisy places. Filtered ear plugs such as Sonic I can be purchased in any music or gun shop. They reduce the damaging decibels, whereas foam plugs will muffle sound but still allow too high a decibel range to enter your ears. Carpeting, pictures and plants will absorb sound. Be aware of your surroundings and do whatever you can to reduce the noise level.

Effects on health begin at 75dB. Hearing damage begins at 90dB and can be permanent with one exposure of 120dB or more.

Last year [2007] there was publicity regarding Army musicians. A report stated that pipers, buglers and drummers could easily exceed allowable daily noise exposure limits in the course of their normal practice. All pipers and drummers should therefore be classified as at risk of hearing damage and subject to annual testing, it said.

There is a variety of protection available for the ears. The earmuffs might not look good under the glengarry, however.
There is a variety of protection available for the ears. The earmuffs might not look good under the glengarry, however.

The Royal National Institute for the Deaf (RNID) applauded the army in Scotland for taking steps to protect the hearing of its soldiers who are learning to play the pipes. A spokesman said: “Most people don’t realise how important their hearing is until they start to lose it. Everyday activities such as using a phone, talking to colleagues and joining in with a conversation can become difficult. Anyone who 1s concerned about their hearing can take the RNID’s five minute confidential telephone hearing check on 0845 600 5555.”

New guidelines compiled by the Army Medical Directorate Environmental Health team say the bagpipe can cause hearing damage if played outside for more than 24 minutes a day. The document insists that musicians playing indoors should only do so for 15 minutes, and just six minutes in echo prone toilets with tiled walls, an area commonly used by pipers for practising.

The guidelines, which also apply to drummers, were carried out because the military fears being sued by soldiers who claim their hearing has been damaged by too much pipe playing. The MoD already makes special payments to personnel whose hearing has been affected by working on rifle ranges.

Army experts tested the decibels levels of playing bagpipes in a variety of locations. The tests found that the bagpipe peaks at 111 decibels outdoors, slightly louder than a pneumatic drill. When the pipes are played indoors they peak at 116dB about as loud as a chainsaw. Very loud rock music can reach 150dB while a jet taking off peaks at 140dB.

A spokesman for the army in Scotland said: “The new rules show we are serious about protecting soldiers. It is simply a prudent precaution.”

• Pipe band ear plugs are available from The Bagpipe Shop.