A version of this article was published in the Hamilton Spectator, February 13, 2019
I am sitting on a hard folding chair in a small box of a room, walls tiled with soundproofing squares, patterns of small holes dimple the bland surface. I can see my reflection in a smoky, square, one-way window in front of me. The room is utilitarian to the point of lacking personality, perhaps even exerting some negative force that is draining mine and the technician’s own.
The room is purely pragmatic, much like a police holding cell, and it shares the same sense of seeming stuck in time. Other than one odd touch, a fusty toy monkey at a tiny drum kit, they could have filmed The Milgram Experiments here.
I’m here to get tested, but if I’m the least bit nervous, it’s not the kind of test that I could study for and fail. I’m getting my hearing tested, I already know there has been a drop-off in my hearing, thanks, I’m sure, to loud concerts I joyfully attended in my raggedy, rebellious youth. Leaving smoky concert halls with ears buzzing was common and a trophy of sorts, cheaper than buying band merchandise.
But now it’s warbling sounds of various pitches and volume entering through the headphones I’m wearing as the specialist notes my raised-finger signal that I have picked up the sound.
The Pure Tone Audiogram chart I’m shown after is like my high school grades the year I discovered recreational drugs, declining steeply. The toll is in the higher frequencies. I will mishear certain words, especially words with “f,” “s,” and “th.” I guess that’s the trajectory of age: downward, slow or fast, but relentlessly, predictably, down.
She asks if I normally hear buzzing and I don’t know if I do, but later, at home in bed I notice it. I’m instantly panicked that I will now notice it all the time. It’s distracting.
I’m at a point where I could get hearing aids to help catch the higher frequency sounds, I’m informed, but for now, I prefer to miss a few words than to have something fitted into my ears.
Is it a curse, then, to live in a Music Town, as Hamilton has branded itself? With so many bands and venues, it’s easy to find something to do most nights. Hamilton’s got a reputation for gritty music, it’s a value the Steel City cut its teeth on. Teenage Head, Forgotten Rebels, Chore, Monster Truck. I heard Ray Materick play “Linda Put The Coffee On” so loud in a small club a few years ago that I thought my ears would bleed java.
Talking about going to see a band with some friends, we end up talking about how loud it is, I suppose it’s that “kids these days” meme for past-our-prime-time players.
We get into a short digression on the subject of earplugs, exactly the kind of conversation my 20-year-old self would not have had the patience for. But here I am offering pro-tips about a library at the university that has the best free earplugs, something I learned from one of my student volunteers.
Then it occurs to me that we are all individually planning to fit our ears with foam plugs to go listen to music. This is, of course, absurd, and it poses a systems problem: why don’t the bands and the clubs turn down the volume so that we can listen comfortably, maybe even safely?
We’ve banned smoking indoors, should we consider noise a new indoor health issue?
Jonathon Richman of Modern Lovers fame once declared that music shouldn’t be played so loud that it would hurt a baby’s ear. But how loud is too loud?
I asked Dr Larry Roberts, an internationally recognized expert on tinnitus, based at McMaster University, who was generous with both his time and expertise. Let’s just say I’m squandering the riches he shared to relate this one simple truth: humans didn’t evolve in such a noise-filled, volume-peaking, loud environment. That’s right, it’s not natural to be exposed to this much sound. I also learned the proper way to pronounce tinnitus. And of course, the answer to the question: how loud is too loud. “If you have to yell to be heard, it’s too loud.”
There you have it. Roberts advises having an exit plan when the dBs reach damage-levels. If you have to assign a danger threshold a number, let’s go with 80 decibels. Sustained noise at that level starts to eat into your hearing health.
We are, by nature of our vibrant scenes, victims of opportunity, and thereby subject to very real threats. While our lungs are now protected from cigarette smoke in clubs, it seems our hearing is something we haven’t really considered. Earplugs now or hearing aids later? Is that the question we are faced with in Music Town?