With the recent rise in the popularity of drumming over the last 10 to 15 years, there are more and more opportunities to take part in this form of community music making. That’s the good news, but it’s not the only news. There are also some serious health considerations that come along with group drummingand any form of community music making for that matter.
According to a study by the World Health Organization (WHO), Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) poses a real threat for the health and well-being of people the world over. Although the study focused on sustained levels of noise in the workplace, even temporary exposure to high levels of sound can cause permanent hearing loss. What?
The consequences of noise induced hearing loss include:
- social isolation.
- impaired communication with coworkers and family.
- decreased ability to monitor the work environment.
- increased injuries from impaired communication in isolation.
- anxiety, irritability and decreased self-esteem.
- lost productivity.
- expenses for workers’ compensation and hearing aids.
- tinnitus, or what is often referred to as a ‘ringing’ in the ears.
As the number of musicians in an ensemble increases, the potential for hearing loss also increases. Traditional ‘world music’ drumming ensembles consists of 4 or 5 drummers at the most, with a possible 2 or 3 additional small hand percussionists playing instruments like bells and blocks. The introduction of large format group drumming a.k.a. drum circles, introduces an entirely new challenge when it comes to keeping sound levels at a healthy volume. Drum circles are certainly not the only types of drumming ensembles that can produce high levels of sound. Marching bands and traditional drumming groups can as well.
At a recent conference, I personally experienced sound levels exceeding 95 dB. these were measured using a decibel meter on my iPhone at a distance of 10 feet outside of a drum circle with an estimated 100 participants. The world health organization studied two types of noise in the workplace, those between 85 and 90 dB and those above 90 dB.
Just how much short term exposure to sound levels over 90 dB might affect the one’s hearing is unclear: however, it is generally agreed that any sustained exposure to sound levels over 90 dB should be avoided. If you don’t carry around a sound meter with you, you can use this general rule of thumb. If it feels like it’s too loud, it probably is. Your physiology is likely adequate to warn you if sound levels become unhealthy. The important thing is that you listen to your body and take action, rather than waiting until it’s too late. What was that you said?
Some things you can do to avoid hearing loss include: using earplugs, moving away from loud instruments and avoiding placing yourself in extremely loud environments. If you are a drummer, musician, teacher or therapist who works in settings where group drumming takes place, you can help to educate your peers and participants as to the potential health risks posed by large group drumming ensembles and take steps to reduce risk.
Keep in mind that most drums and percussion instruments, at least the kind that are commonly used in drum circles, are traditionally played outdoors. Bringing these instruments indoors and increasing the numbers by ten-fold or more, poses unique challenges with regard to health. As my friend and drummer Chrystine Jullian is fond of saying, “Drumming can be a lot like hitting your head against the wall – it feels good when you stop.”
There’s some truth to this statement. Whether you realize it or not, when you expose yourself to sustained high levels of sound, your body experiences a low level of trauma, triggered by a mechanism in your upper spinal column and lower brain called the reticular formation. Because your body reacts to the sound levels as if it were under attack, possibly in an earthquake, thunderstorm, or stampede, certain hormones and endorphins will be released into your bloodstream. One of these may include dopamine, a feel good hormone that is often associated with runner’s high and other activities where the body feels the need to self medicate.
An interesting question that could be explored is: Are the good feelings that drummers often self-report due to the activity of drumming itself, or the result of the body’s natural defense mechanisms protecting it from potential pain?
What we do know, is that if we are all going to continue to enjoy community drumming in large numbers, and indoors, then we must all find a way to preserve and protect our hearing. After all – what good is music making if you can’t enjoy it? Huh? I didn’t catch that last thing you said.
I hope this article has been helpful to you. Please leave your comments and suggestions below.