Did you know that unlike an injured muscle that can heal itself, once hearing is damaged, it cannot be repaired? As musicians who have a fairly loud instrument directly under our left ears, hearing health is something that should not be taken lightly! Loudness is a subjective phenomenon, and even though what you're hearing might not seem too loud, it could still do damage. So how do you know? Sound intensity is measured in decibels (dB), and a sound level meter (SLM) can give you an accurate gauge of how intense volume is.
If you have an iPhone, you can download this free SLM. If you have an Android, you can download this free SLM. While apps aren't as accurate as a true SLM, they will give you a fairly accurate reading of the level of sound intensity to which you are exposing yourself.
But how loud is too loud?
The chart below (which can also be seen here) shows the accepted standards for sound exposure. At 85 dB, you can safely listen for 8 hours without risk of hearing damage. For every 3 dB increase, the amount of safe exposure time decreases by half. So for 88 dB, you can safely listen for 4 hours, and for 91 dB, you can safely listen for 2 hours.
There are three things you can do to protect your hearing health:
1: Turn down the volume (perfect when listening to MP3 players!)
2: Move away from the source of the sound
3: Wear hearing protection (i.e. ear plugs)
Orchestras can easily reach over 100 dB of sound intensity (!), but rehearsals are never a mere 15 minutes long, which would be the safe amount of exposure time to such levels. Since you cannot turn down the volume of your orchestra, nor can you move away from the rest of the viola section, your only option is to wear hearing protection. I wear ear plugs very often when rehearsing and performing. It did take a little while to get used to hearing myself and the ensemble through the plugs, but I acclimated quickly, and now do not hesitate to use ear plugs if I think the volume is too loud.
Remember: Once hearing is damaged, it'll never come back... So wear ear plugs!