Musicians, your ears are trying to protect you from hearing loss. Let them do their job and keep you healthy by keeping both of your in-ear monitors in.
As a musician that uses in-ear monitors (IEM), the tympanic reflex is a topic I regularly think about, but can never remember the name of it. I should file this article under “personal reminders.” I’m writing about it here so I can find it faster in the future.
What is tympanic reflex?
Our bodies have a natural protection mechanism built into our ears that tries to prevent hearing loss from loud noises. I’m not an audiologist, but from what I understand, the tympanic reflex is an involuntary reaction that temporarily muffles the transmission of louder sounds by contracting some inner ear muscles. Unfortunately, the reflex is not immediate; it takes about 40 milliseconds to kick in, which is why very sudden loud noises like gunshots, explosions, snare drum hits, and shouts can still do a lot of damage. But the reflex does help (to some degree) to reduce damage from sustained loud noises.
Why should musicians care about tympanic reflex?
Many musicians now use IEMs instead of stage wedge speakers to monitor audio in live performances. IEMs can help solve a lot of problems that stages wedges present. IEMs can help reduce overall stage volume, prevent hearing damage, allow musicians to hear exactly what they need or want to hear better, and provide click tracks or guide tracks that the audience can’t hear.
However, to provide these benefits, good IEMs completely seal off the “outside world”—an auditory experience which can be quite alienating for performers. This disconnecting feeling drives many musicians to play with only one “ear” in. Best of both worlds, right? Nope. The bad news is that the tympanic reflex doesn’t kick in when our ears hear a loud noise isolated in one ear. Our bodies didn’t evolve to adapt to such an unnatural experience, so we can’t benefit from the natural protective effects of the tympanic reflex in such a scenario.
Musicians, please wear both IEMs. It’s all or nothing if we want to protect our hearing over time. I know a few of my fellow musicians that have hearing loss due to wearing only one earbud. Protect yourself before you wreck yourself.
If you are looking for IEMs, there are tons of options now. I have some Shure E2 earbuds I got a while ago. They’re alright. I don’t love or hate them. I know there are better options out there now (prices correlating with quality). Shure has lots of newer options. Tons of consumer-grade options exist. For professionals, I hear a lot about IEMs from Westone and Future Sonics.
I first read about the tympanic reflex in this article In-Ear Monitors: Tips of the Trade by Keith Gordon. I was researching best practices for IEMs and discovered some valuable tips there. Check it out.