Can piano practice damage your hearing ?

This blog is concerned with the cumulative risk of piano playing on hearing over many years.   My childhood piano teacher lived to around 95 years of age. Although her mental faculties were intact, she couldn’t bear to listen to music for the last 10-15 years of her life. Apparently, all the notes would be a ‘jangle’, distorted and in the wrong key. This was obviously very distressing to a musician, and was clearly more than the usual age-related deafness.   Two great pianists are also on record as having suffered from remarkably similar problems. Sviatoslav Richter suffered from severe depression before his death in 1997 age 82 because of changes in his hearing which altered his perception of pitch, according to the biography by Bruno Monsaingeon. And Alfred Brendel stated, in his Desert Island Discs interview of 15/11/2013, that his hearing had suddenly ‘broken down’ the previous year, and that he ‘rarely went to concerts’ and ‘hardly listened to music any more’ because of problems with his hearing – perhaps suggesting more than simple age-related deafness.

I have played the piano since a young boy, and although I pursued a medical career, I always kept up my playing, and practiced and performed ‘big’ repertoire pieces , such as the Liszt Sonata, Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata, Schubert ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy and the Brahms concertos, on noisy grand pianos.   After a spell of hard practice before a performance of Brahms second concerto, around 1995, I developed tinnitus, and an audiogram showed the typical ‘notch’ and marked loss of higher frequencies, confirming the diagnosis of acoustic trauma. I have had tinnitus ever since, and I have no doubt that it relates directly to the cumulative exposure, over many years, to piano sound.   Fortunately, I tolerate the tinnitus well, and have not experience any of the distortions of pitch described in individuals above – yet.   However the marked loss of higher frequencies has reduced my perception and enjoyment of music, particularly orchestral and vocal music. I wish that I had been more aware of these potential problems when I was younger and practising hard on noisy pianos !  Yet my lifetime’s exposure, after a busy career in acute hospital medicine, can hardly compare with that of most professional pianists.

There seems to be debate on the relevant forums as to whether playing the piano can result in permanent hearing damage and tinnitus, hence this post.   I have no doubt that it can do so.   I suspect that the damage relates to the cumulative impact of the sound over many years, rather than its intensity at any given moment.   Perhaps it might be regarded as a price worth paying, for a lifetime’s pleasure at the keyboard !   Yet I suspect that many practice pianos, and practice rooms, in music schools and conservatories are bright, over-loud and over-resonant, and that this may store up problems later on.   One practical measure to decrease the risk might be to put blankets over a piano so the overall sound level is reduced without recourse to special hearing protectors, which I have tried but found to be unsatisfactory. My two pianos are thus covered in blankets and sleeping bags !   But the damage is done in my case, and is irreversible. Perhaps this blog might help younger pianists to avoid similar problems in the future.   I think it is a real and unrecognised problem.

 

Author: hmather@btopenworld.com

Organizer of classical concerts at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas Ealing. Pianist, organist and retired physician

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