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We need your ears

Tony Colman (Image copyright: Hospital Records*)

Tony Colman (Image copyright: Hospital Records)

We know that exposure to loud noise can lead to hearing loss, with working in noisy environments long known as a culprit. But what effect has loud music had on the population’s hearing? Today we’re launching a mass participation study to see how our listening past affects our hearing present. Here Tony Colman, drum & bass DJ and co-founder of the Hospital Records label, tells us how exposure to loud music has affected his hearing ― and why you should take part in our online experiment so scientists can find out more.

How long have you been DJing for?

I’ve only been DJing for 17 years — before that I was playing guitar in several bands. I’ve been making music in the studio for 30 years.

What do you estimate your exposure to loud music to be?

It totally varies day to day. Many days nothing at all — at gigs, a lot — but I stuff my ears with silicone earplugs when I’m not playing myself.

Tell us about when you first realised you had tinnitus.

It was after we did a Hospital Records album launch at a drum & bass night called Movement at Bar Rumba in Piccadilly Circus. I remember thinking “what’s that ringing sound?”, and then I knew what it was. The system on that night was stupidly loud and I remember almost feeling pain in my ears. Is tinnitus something you wished you’d been aware of earlier?

Yes and no. Yes, because I would have taken precautions much earlier, but no, because it may have made me decide to do something else, and I’m glad I didn’t!

Is tinnitus common among your peers?

It is very common. Not just in DJs but in ravers too.

How do you deal with having tinnitus?

I try to use it to my advantage, and to be positive about it. I only have it in my left ear, which is almost totally deaf in the mid–high frequency range. That has its uses when you’re trying to sleep in a noisy hotel — I just sleep on my right side. Also I taught myself to find the tinnitus itself soothing and reassuring, and believe it or not, that works.

How do you protect yourself from any further damage now?

As I said, I go for almost total block-out when I’m not working. I have moulded earplugs, but the problem with those for DJs is that you end up turning the headphones up to compensate. Whenever I DJ after someone who is wearing ear plugs, they always crank the volume right up — which negates the 20 decibel reduction in their earplugs anyway.

Why do you think research into hearing and loud music is important?

It’s very important. I’m lucky enough to have been able to be positive about my hearing damage, but for many people hearing constant white noise, bells and whistles can be soul destroying.

Tony Colman

Take the test now.

Our online experiment is open to everyone: younger or older in age, better or worse in hearing and with a wide variety of musical experiences and hearing abilities. It involves a questionnaire about your history of listening to loud music – either at gigs or in clubs, or using portable audio devices. You will also be asked to do a short listening experiment, which gives a measurement of your ability to identify words in a background of noise. This is a simple measure of someone’s hearing and is not a substitute for a proper hearing test.

Please contact your GP if you have concerns about your hearing.

The experiment was produced by hearing researchers from the MRC Institute of Hearing Research and the National Institute of Health Research’s Nottingham Hearing Biomedical Research Unit. The project is part of our Centenary programme of events and is supported by the Medical Research Foundation.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi there. I’ve just completed this test. I suffer constant tinnitus, and I wanted to add that although I have had lots of exposure to loud music over the years that I can pinpoint the three or four moments when I have done significant permanent damage to my hearing, and all have been with extremely loud speakers playing music louder than the speakers can handle in close proximity to my ears. In the same way that a speaker can break due to this type of signal, I think that the ear can be damaged by receiving that type of waveform at that volume.

    December 21, 2013
    • Katherine Nightingale #

      Thanks Tom, I’ll pass this on to our scientists.

      Katherine Nightingale
      MRC Science Writer

      (PS I’m a bit of a fan – saw you at the Notting Hill Arts Club a few years ago!)

      December 22, 2013
  2. Davy Lebrun #

    Hi, I’ve just taken the test and received my results of approximately -23 performance. However I have no way of understanding the results. Is -23db a good result for my hearing or not?

    Cheers, Davy.

    December 28, 2013
    • Katherine Nightingale #

      Hi Davy,

      Thanks for taking the test. I’ll find out for you. There might be a bit of a delay because of New Year, but I’ll post a response from one of our scientists here when I get one.


      Katherine Nightingale
      MRC Science Writer

      December 30, 2013
  3. Katherine Nightingale #

    Hi Davy,

    I’ve got an answer for you from one of the researchers on the project, Dr Michael Akeroyd. Here it is:

    “More negative is better. The test measures the threshold for identifying speech in noise, and the lower the threshold, the better the hearing. The way the test works is:

    * The first trial is set at an easy level of speech. You should be able to get all three digits right.
    * If you do, the speech level goes down by 2 dB. It should be a bit harder … but let’s assume you get those digits right too.
    * So it now goes down by another 2 dB. Now it’s quite hard: let’s assume you miss one digit, and so get 2/3 correct …
    * … but you need all three! So it goes *up* by 2 dB.
    * The next trial is easier, so you get all three right and it goes down …
    * And so on, wobbling up and down for 25 trials.

    The result is that the speech level wobbles between the lowest level at which you can get all three and the slightly-lower-still level at which you only get 1 or 2. We split the difference between these levels – that’s the threshold. The level of the noise is fixed. So, the y-axis on the graph is the *difference* in level between the speech, at threshold, and the noise (though its called a “signal-to-noise ratio” because levels are measured in decibels, which are logarithms of real numbers, and a difference in logs is a ratio of reals).

    Anyway, the more negative the number, the quieter the speech is at threshold. Negative is good; very negative is very good.

    Still, we can’t say “your hearing is bad” on the basis of our test. It’s not a medical test, and it’s not the kind of test that an audiologist will use to measure your hearing or fit a hearing aid. Also, we have no idea of the acoustic enviroment (or quality of headphones!) that you may be in or using. Across thousands of people, it will all average out in the data, but, for any one individual, it’s not very good for predicting someone.”

    I hope that helps. Let us know if you have any more questions.

    Katherine Nightingale
    MRC Science Writer

    January 3, 2014
  4. Caroline #

    1. I’m using a friend’s laptop and the volume does work – but the test didn’t begin – or else I am totally deaf.

    2. I found it impossible to answer the questions with any degree of accuracy. I didn’t want to distort the results because my listening habits varied too greatly within the age groupings available.
    I would have thought many people’s listening habits would be like mine and would change dramatically after age 16. It would be easier to answer the questions for smaller age gaps as between ages 10 – 15 I would answer No loud music and for between 15 – 20 the answer would be weekly. Age 20 -25 almost weekly but 25 -30 almost none. If I answer based on age 16 + it distorts by an extra 6 yrs the number of years listened to loud music. I therefore suspect that the results won’t reflect real activity as we are forced to choose to select either much too much or too little – in the younger age groups in particular.
    In fact I listened to no loud music nor went to gigs until age 17. But I listened to it weekly and went to noisy music event weekly ages 18 – 23. Then listened to hardly any loud music age 24-30. So what should I select in your boxes? Your age ranges are too wide for me to be able to answer without distorting the result. I’d think my listening pattern is similar for many college goers…

    January 11, 2014
    • Katherine Nightingale #

      Hi Caroline,

      Thanks for letting us know about these concerns. I’ve passed them on to one of the scientists involved in the project and he should be able to get back to you with a response soon (he is currently moving labs so things are a bit disrupted…)

      Katherine Nightingale
      MRC Science Writer

      January 14, 2014
    • Katherine Nightingale #

      Hi Caroline,

      Here’s a response from Dr Michael Akeroyd at the MRC Institute for Hearing Research:

      I’m using a friend’s laptop and the volume does work – but the test didn’t begin – or else I am totally deaf.

      Are you sure the sound wasn’t muted? We often do that in the lab by mistake in our experiments!

      I found it impossible to answer the questions with any degree of accuracy. I didn’t want to distort the results because my listening habits varied too greatly within the age groupings available… Your age ranges are too wide for me to be able to answer without distorting the result. I’d think my listening pattern is similar for many college goers…

      This is an important issue, so thanks for raising it. On the one hand, a finer detail to the questions would have given a finer resolution to
      the data, and that would have been very good. But on the other, it would also have made the questions longer, and that may have put some people off doing the test at all. We ummed and ahhed a lot in the lab about what to do here: we couldn’t do both! In the end, we went for shortness
      of questionaire.

      Still, we accept the point here. Few science experiments are ever perfect: there are always choices to be made. Almost every experiment there is could have been done somewhat differently. And what is perhaps best about science is that we don’t know how the data will pan out: if we knew the answer in advance, we would not need to do the experiment!

      And as for how to answer the questions: average across decades.

      Hope this helps

      January 15, 2014
  5. Rosie #

    I’ve just done the test and, like Davy Lebrun (above), didn’t know how to interpret my result. Your answer to his question has answered mine – namely (as I understand) the more negative the better (i.e. -20db is much better than -5db). I do, though, think it would be well worth adding that explanation on the test page that gives people’s results. I found it pretty worrying not being able to hear some of the words in the test. Some simple explanation would have immediately helped me put that worry in perspective. I did a quick google search about speech to noise ratios and was blinded by science.

    May 7, 2014
    • Katherine Nightingale #

      Thanks Rosie, I’ll pass this feedback on.

      Katherine Nightingale
      MRC Science Writer

      May 8, 2014

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