Our ears are the most important tool we have when playing the bagpipes.
Many bagpipers never consider hearing protection. When I first started playing in the late 1980s, I didn’t see a single person wearing earplugs of any kind. I just took this as the norm and never thought otherwise. Unfortunately, I now have to deal with ringing in the ears, and after a quick survey of several other players, this is not unusual.
Hearing loss, or damage, is a spectrum of symptoms from no hearing problems to total deafness. These symptoms include difficulty using the telephone, need for increased volume on the TV or radio, pain or pressure in the ears, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), vertigo, and others.
The type of hearing damage most musicians face is called Noise-Induced Hearing Loss. This is caused by sudden high intensity noise, like gunshots, or chronic and repeated noise exposure, like loud music. To understand how this happens we need to look at how hearing works.
Hearing is a mechanical process. Sound is a vibration that produces mechanical waves (pressure and displacement) in a medium. In our case, it’s a pressure (sound) wave propagated though the air. The sound wave is collected by the outer ear and funneled through the auditory canal to the tympanic membrane (ear drum.)
The waves cause the drum to vibrate, moving the bones of the inner ear, transferring the wave to the cochlea. The cochlea contains tiny hairs cells surrounded by fluid. The vibration of the fluid stimulates the hairs which are connected to the auditory nerves and transmits the signals to the brain.
Hearing loss is caused (in part) by overstimulation of the hair cells. This overstimulation damages or destroys the hair cells, which is permanent. The death of the hair cells can also cause scaring, which can hinder the movement of the fluid in the cochlea. It is the physical damage to the hair that causes hearing loss.
The overstimulation is caused by two main factors, how “loud” is the sound, and how long you hear the sound. The “loudness” of a sound is measured in decibels (dBA), which is a representation off the pressure and displacement of the sound wave. The higher the number, the louder the sound. An important point is that a decibel is a logarithmic ratio.
How loud is too loud? The general consensus is 85dBA over 8 hours is the limit. Anything over that is too loud and damage can be done. To give you an idea of what 85dBA is, a whisper is about 20dBA, moderate rainfall is around 50dBA, heavy traffic (like city traffic) is about 78dBA, Vacuum cleaners, blenders and lawn mowers are about 85-90dBA. An individual bagpipe will be around 95-105dBA and a group of 10 bagpipers averages about 125dBA.
It’s easy to think that if you can listen to a vacuum cleaner for 8 hours,
playing the bagpipes for a half hour, or spending 2 hours at band practice should be fine. This is wrong. Since decibels are logarithmic an increase in 10dBA is essentially double the “loudness.” If a vacuum is 85dBA and a bagpipe is 95dBA then the bagpipe is twice as loud as the vacuum.
In the United States the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has come up with some guidelines for sound exposure. NIOSH bases exposure levels, noise dose, on an 8 hour work day, over a 40 year work-life. According to them a 100% noise dose, after which hearing damage might occur, is 85dBA for 8 hours.
In their study NIOSH determined that just a 3dBA increase will cut the exposure time in half. 85dBA will allow you 8 hours to reach a full dose, but 88dB only gives you 4 hours, etc…
Looking at this table you can see that practicing on the bagpipes, on your own, you would get a full noise dose after 15-30 minutes. Playing with a group of 10 bagpipers, for any amount of time, is going to cause damage. This is why hearing protection is important.