Hair cell of the inner ear

Now you’re gone

Loss of hearing is an occupational hazard for musicians – and a problem for those who listen to them

Loudspeakers and amplified music have increased many people’s listening pleasure, but at considerable cost. High-volume music may be pleasurable at the time but it can store up problems for the future.

The main problem is that sounds are detected by physical deformation of fragile hair cells, which can be damaged by loud sounds. The first to go are hair cells sensing high-frequency sounds in the first part of the cochlea.

Short-term signs of damage include ringing in the ears (tinnitus) or temporary deafness. In the long term, these can become permanent.

At particular risk are musicians regularly exposed to loud music. In the early days of rock, the dangers of loud music were not so well appreciated, and many musicians now suffer from impaired hearing (such as The Who’s Pete Townshend, who now works to raise awareness of the dangers).

Why is loud music so appealing? There is some evidence that loud music can stimulate ear structures outside the hearing system – creating a ‘physical’ sensation as well as an aural one. Indeed, part of the attraction of some forms of music, such as reggae or bass-heavy dance music, may lie in its physical impact.

Lead image:

Hair cell of the inner ear. There are two types of hair cell: outer hair cells and inner hair cells. Outer hair cells act to amplify the incoming sound signals. Inner hair cells (like these, which are from a guinea pig) convert mechanical stimulation into an electrical signal.

Dr David Furness, Wellcome Images CC BY NC ND

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Cell biology, Health, infection and disease
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development