Tinnitus and the Rock and Roll threshold: Tinnitus Week 2019

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It is Tinnitus Week so Getintothis’ Matthew Eland puts his earplugs in and crosses the rock and roll threshold.

Sound is a physical thing.

Humans can tolerate it up to about 130 decibels. After that, it starts to hurt.

For context, a conversation is 50 decibels. A motorbike from 25 feet away is around 90. Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs at the Shipping Forecast averaged at 100 decibels.

A mine-crushing machine from 328 feet away is 127. At 194 decibels, sound pushes up against the air with such force that it can no longer pass through; at this point you have a pressure wave.

When Krakatoa exploded in 1883, barometers around the world recorded peaks in air pressure as the shockwave rang around the world three times. 2,333 miles away, ranchers in Alice Springs, Australia reported hearing a loud crack. 40 miles away from Krakatoa, half the crew of a British ship had their eardrums shattered.

We just aren’t built for this kind of volume. For around 200,000 years the loudest noise humans have had to deal with (except for cataclysmic, end-time level events like Krakatoa) has been thunder: 120 decibels.

Apart from that, our auditory organs are built for nuance: for detecting rustles in the bushes, or your neighbours rooting through the bins just before dawn.

Evolution filtered out the noises that would make us go mad, or make it harder to communicate: like certain frequencies of wind, or the clashing of storm fronts out at sea.

There’s a problem though. Humans really like loud music.

Loud bass frequencies stimulate a bed of sensory cells in the inner ear called the saccule.

The saccule is part of the vestibular system, which controls movement, but it’s also sensitive to sound. Fish use the succule to hear, which suggests that it’s a vestigial throwback to when we jibbed off the flippers and fins and crawled onto land to grow legs, just like in that Fatboy Slim video.

In 2000, Todd and Cody (J Acoust Soc AM. 2000;107(1):496-500) posited that “acoustically evoked sensations of self-motion may account for the compulsion to exposure to loud music“.

They call it the “rock-and-roll threshold“; there is a certain volume at which music stimulates your sacculus, eliciting a pleasurable response. Something similar happens when you ride a roller-coaster.

Like everything good though, there’s a downside to this simple hedonism; it knackers your ears.

Ask any of the following: Bob Dylan, Ozzy Osbourne, Barbra Streisand, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Bono, Sting, Neil Young, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Chris Martin, Liam Gallagher, Ted Nugent, Mick Fleetwood, Anthony Kiedis, Lars Ulrich, Brian Wilson; they’re all reported to have had hearing problems as a result of exposure to loud music.

Hearing damage is devastating to anyone, but if you’re a musician – if your livelihood depends on you being able to play live – then it’s particularly upsetting.

Of course, all of the musicians we’ve listed above could live comfortably off the royalties without playing another note. But if you’re not working at that level, the results can be damaging.

Take Owen Brinley of Department M, and formerly Grammatics.

Grammatics released one album in 2009. They made cinematic pop, with one nod to the sophistication of bands like Pulp and Suede and another to Dance To The Radio alumni Forward Russia and Pulled Apart By Horses (who have a song about Grammatics‘ bassist called I’ve Got Guestlist to Rory O’Hara’s Suicide).

They also had a heavier, proggier edge, which combined with Brinley‘s androgynous falsetto to make them a singular proposition.

Sometimes we wonder about the alternate reality where they’re now on their fifth album, and how we can get there.

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Brinley has written wonderfully about the “band practices, gigs, club nights and raves” and the “two discordant frequencies a semi-tone apart” that haunted him in adolescence and beyond.

Most of us gig-goers and music aficionados have these kinds of tinnitus, and it seems to bother some people more than others.

Tinnitus can’t be ‘cured’, only worked around via therapy, and it seems to me (and I’m hypothesising here, since my tinnitus does my head in) that some people don’t mind it that much.

For Brinley though, it got worse. He developed hyperacusis when he was working on a Department M song called J-Hop which, ironically, was supposed to be a sonic representation of his tinnitus.

Hyperacusis is an increased sensitivity to sound. Brinley describes it as having your world sound like “a fucked Marshall stack“. Screeching bus brakes, clinking glasses, even the sound of his girlfriend’s voice took on a serrating, unbearable pitch.

Counselling allowed Brinley to “get the measure of the fucker“, and his hearing problems have eased over time. Re-focusing the attention away from the associated anxiety has allowed him to continue his career in music, but Department M gigs now see him deploying industrial-strength ear defenders over his earplugs.

Peter Silberman of Antlers went one better. He got diagnosed with tinnitus, hyperacusis AND cochlear hydrops. Like Brinley, even normal noise – the sound of his own voice, for example – became intolerable. In response, he did a Bon Iver: he decamped to a cabin in upstate New York and got to work on Impermanence, a sparse, shimmering 6-track record a world away from the Antlers’ usual melodramatic folk-psych racket.

For Antlers there’s a happy ending, with the band recently announcing a 10-year anniversary tour to commemorate their album Hospice. (Here’s hoping for a Burst Apart tour in 2021.) This serves as an example in two ways.

Firstly, it shows that it’s possible to carry on after tinnitus. It can be lived with. Anyone struggling with the anxiety and distress associated with the condition can take solace from the musicians who, with the proper treatment, have carried on making music. Secondly, it shows us that no one is immune to tinnitus. Being acclimatised to noise doesn’t make you invincible.

However you decide to tease your sacculus this Tinnitus Week, make sure you take precautions before you cross the rock and roll threshold. Good things happen there, but remember to plug ‘em: sound is physical, and the damage is permanent.

Advice and support can be found at www.tinnitus.org.uk.

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