by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A man asked,
Does listening to music at low volume levels, but for 5-6 hours or more every day, make tinnitus worse? Is it better to listen via speakers or headphones?
Listening to music at low volume levels should not bother your tinnitus (or make it worse). That’s a general rule of thumb.
However, you need to define what you consider “low volume levels”. In a society addicted to loud music, your definition of “low” volume may be much higher than the commonly-accepted “safe” levels promulgated today. To me, “low levels” of sound would mean that all sounds (including all peaks in the music you are listening to) would measure less than 80 dB. The average sound level should be no more than the same level as people talking—namely in the range of 50 to 70 dB or so.
If you keep what you are listening to in that range, I doubt that it will negatively affect your tinnitus.
However, some people have “weird” hearing/tinnitus and their tinnitus is sensitive to lower-level sounds. If this is your situation, turn the volume down until it doesn’t bother your tinnitus.
Other people have “reactive” tinnitus. Reactive tinnitus reacts or responds to louder sounds. Thus, your tinnitus continues to get louder and louder as the volume of sound around you goes up. If this is your case, you need to keep turning the music down until you find a “safe” level that does not cause your tinnitus to react.
Thus, depending on your tinnitus, the above rule of thumb may not apply to you. The best way to know what is right for you is to monitor your own tinnitus. If low-level music makes your tinnitus worse, either turn the volume down more until it doesn’t, or don’t listen so long that it bothers your tinnitus. In addition, your ears need some “down time” too—so give them breaks from time to time.
Theoretically, whether you wear earbuds/earphones or listen via loudspeakers shouldn’t make any difference if you keep the volume to a low level as defined above.
A problem could arise if you were listening to music that is generally softer, but at points has crashing cymbals, loud drums or other suddenly-crescendoing sounds. If you are wearing earbuds/headphones, there is less physical space for those extra-loud sounds to dissipate before they hit your eardrums than if you were listening via loudspeakers.
In my case, since I have a severe hearing loss, as well as discrimination problems, I need to have the average volume very loud in order for me to hear and understand anything. In other words, the average level is much louder than 50 to 70 dB—more like 95+ dB—and this is already over the hearing-damaging level. Thus, any increase in volume (music peaks) can hurt my ears. As a result, for this kind of music I typically opt for listening via loudspeakers so the peaks have a chance to dissipate in the air before they hit my eardrums.
In such cases choose loudspeakers over earbuds/earphones. Even so, if you keep the peaks below 80 dB, it shouldn’t really matter. However, if your tinnitus is louder after listening to your music, then you know it is still too loud for your ears, and you have to turn the volume down more.
Listening to low-level music (just loud enough to hear) may also have a beneficial effect on your tinnitus. You may find that the music masks your tinnitus so it doesn’t bother you while you are listening to it. And if you are really lucky, you may find that residual inhibition kicks in, such that after you stop listening to the music, you discover to your joy that your tinnitus is now at a much lower level, or even disappears for awhile.
If you want to learn more about noise and tinnitus, the many things that can trigger tinnitus, or more about a number of things you can do to help bring your tinnitus under control, check out my book, Take Control of Your Tinnitus.