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Looking At Hearing

Monday, January 24, 2011 - 01:52 PM

Today we begin a 4-part series on the ways in which we listen – to music and to the world around us.  Technology has made it easy for us to listen to almost anything, almost anywhere, almost anytime.  To us music fans, that sounds like audio nirvana.  But to some audiologists, it sounds like a recipe for disaster. 

So we’ll be examining, and debating, the best ways to listen, as well as the safest.  I say “debating” because even among scientists there are conflicting views and even conflicting ways of interpreting the data from the same studies. 

Radio hosts spend a lot of time wearing headphones.  In addition to the funny things it does to our hair, it makes us very alert to the extremes of our ability to hear.  Last week one of our guests, the Queen of Rockabilly herself, Wanda Jackson, showed up in a leather jacket.  I had to ask her to take it off, because every time she moved I heard what sounded like a large butt sinking into a leather sofa.  This is a common problem with leather jackets – and while I realize that most listeners would never notice this odd sound in the background (unless they too were listening on headphones, or in a very quiet space at fairly loud volume), I knew it would drive me crazy. 

Another side effect of wearing headphones in the studio: when the band is cranked up to 11, all you hear in the studio is the roar of the amps and the crash of the cymbals and drums.  You can usually tell the singer is singing only by the movement of his/her mouth.  But headphones give me the proper mix, the one heard in the control room.  And they provide a measure of protection from the actual din in the studio.  Problem is, in order to hear that mix, I have to turn the volume way up.   It is one of the hazards of the job – and a blast of feedback can be genuinely painful, and potentially damaging. 

All of this has made a lot of us, who depend on our own ears as well as our headphones for what we do, quite interested in following recent studies of hearing loss among, for example, the iPod generation, and campaigns like Virginia Heffernan’s call to use headphones far less than we do. 

What do you think of headphone use?  Leave a comment

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