Medical Mysteries of Music

How Effective are Earplugs When It Comes to Loud Music? Let’s Ask Science!

Rupinder, a guy who’s always on the lookout for stories where music and medicine intersect, sent me this article from JAMA’s otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat) publication. How effective are earplugs when it comes to preventing the kind of damage caused by loud music?

You might go “Well, duh. Loud music can really screw up your hearing. Of COURSE wearing earplugs are a good thing.” Well, yes, but how effective? And believe it or not, there’s not a lot of data from clinical trials that quantify their effectiveness.

Researchers found 51 volunteers at an outdoor music festival in Amsterdam. Some were given earplugs while others were left to roam unprotected over four-and-a-half hours of music. They were most concerned with the ear’s ability to hear midrange frequencies (3 and 4 kHz) after the gig was over. They also looked into the occurrence of tinnitus afterwards.

Here’s the scientific explanation of the results:

Of 51 participants included, 25 were randomized to the earplug group and 26 to the unprotected group. Nine in each group (36% and 35%, respectively) were men, and the mean (SD) ages were 27.3 (5.6) years in the earplug group and 27.0 (6.2) years in the unprotected group. Baseline demographics were similar in both groups. The time-averaged, equivalent A-weighted sound pressure level experienced was 100 dBA during the festival. A TTS over frequencies at 3 and 4 kHz after exposure was seen in 4 of 50 ears (8%) in the earplug group compared with 22 of 52 ears (42%) in the unprotected group (P < .001). The relative risk for a TTS after exposure was 5.3 (95% CI, 2.0-14.3) for the unprotected group vs the earplug group. The number needed to treat with earplugs for preventing 1 TTS was 2.9. The DPOAE amplitudes decreased significantly more over the frequencies 2 to 8 kHz in the unprotected group: the mean (SD) decrease in magnitude was 0.6 (2.8) dB in the earplug group vs 2.2 (1.9) dB in the unprotected group (P = .04). Newly induced tinnitus following sound exposure occurred in 3 of the 25 participants (12%) in the earplug group vs 10 of 25 (40%) in the unprotected group (difference, 28%; 95% CI, 3.6%-49.0%; P = .02).

Translation? Yes, earplugs work when it comes to preventing temporary hearing loss after exposure to loud music.

Read everything here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37428 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

2 thoughts on “How Effective are Earplugs When It Comes to Loud Music? Let’s Ask Science!

  • Alan, do you have any recommendations for good earplugs that don’t muffle the sound too much? In other words, not those $1 ones from the pharmacy…

    • I’m not Alan, but I’m a huge fan of the ones from Etymotic. Google/shop around for a good price. is a good bet to avoid brokerage fees. Should be around $15-20 for a pair.


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