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Tympanic Reflex

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.

a visual pun - earbuds that are timpani drums

This is a visual pun. The design is intentionally bad.

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.

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Good Music Is Ignorable

In the 3 levels of music, 1 is ignorable and 2 are not.

man listening to music at computer

As I see it, there are three levels of music.


Bad music distracts like the humming of a common appliance or the yapping of a small dog and cannot be ignored. Technical deficiencies, unhoned songs, underdeveloped skills, and lack of attention to details incite the listener to quickly find the source of pain and snuff it out. Amateurs, delusional artists, and tone-deaf listeners don’t believe there is such a thing as “bad” music.


Good music is ignorable. Attention–demanding activities like reading, writing, or working can be accomplished while listening to “good” music. If musicians, engineers, and producers perform their jobs at industry–acceptable levels, their efforts are enjoyed as soundtrack material or supplemental background ambience like one of the those sleep noise machines. Most every musician is completely content to reach this level.


Great music (like bad music) cannot be ignored. Great music transcends, consumes, and demands. It interrupts conversations, moves bodies, chills skin, persuades minds, breaks hearts, inspires change, incites envy/jealousy, and peels back the heavens in holy awe. In the presence of “great” music only one thing can be done: listen.

“He buzzes like a fridge. He’s like a detuned radio.”
— Radiohead, “Karma Police,” OK Computer

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Future Music Debate: Beyond Analog vs. Digital

A response to the question “After Analog vs. Digital, what will we fight about in the future?”

As part of their “#DJChat,” German audio equipment manufacturer Behringer asked this question on Twitter:

…Analog vs. Digital is a debate that will always continue. But in the future, what technology will we move on to AFTER digital? 😀 #DJChat

It’s an interesting concept. The wars between analog and digital rage on because they are systems separated by technologies that both have pros and cons. As technology progresses, what new pros and cons will we have to debate against older systems? Initially I answered with the following:

@BEHRINGER future: Cerebral vs. Digital. Was it made entirely “in the box (aka your head)” or did you collab with other humans and devices?

Realizing there’s much more to this debate than just a tweet, I thought I’d talk more about it here.

We Need Better Words to Describe How We’ll Make Music in the Future

In my original tweet, I used the phrase “Cerebral vs. Digital” to describe the future debate I imagine will happen. Maybe my choice of opposites wasn’t perfect. Better words can probably be found. This concept of diametrics I have in mind could be expressed in a variety of ways.

  1. Cerebral vs. Physical
  2. Solitary vs. Collaborative
  3. Internal vs. External

Each of those word combinations is describing the same contrast of ideas. But how to best describe it?

Composite image of music flowing from a girls mind.

The New System of Mind Music

In the (maybe not so distant) future, musicians will have the ability to directly output music from their heads. Technology will be developed that will allow artists to simply think/imagine/hear the music in his/her head and output this as audio and/or notation. This cerebrally generated “audio feed” could be routed (maybe even wirelessly) to a recording device to be documented, distributed, and sold. Theoretically, this process could happen as a live performance. The signal could be routed to a sound system for a concert, to an internet connection for worldwide streaming, or even directly injected (almost telepathically) into the head of a “listener” outfitted with the proper “receiver” device.

The possibilities are fantastic. Composers could direct an entire imaginary orchestra as they hear it in their minds. Dancers could dance to their own music in real time. Musicians could play exactly what they intend to play. Singers could sing in whatever voices they can imagine. Handicapped artists suddenly would be unrestricted by their handicaps.

This is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. If we already can control toy helicopters with our thoughts, then it’s only a matter of time before we can output music directly from our minds. UPDATE (2011-09-23): This just in… UC Berkeley neuroscientist Professor Jack Gallant announced today that it’s possible to recreate the video from brain activity.

This technological breakthrough in music will follow a path familiar to video games. With the Wii, Nintendo brought wireless motion-sensing accelerometer action to everyday people. The developers of Guitar Hero and Rock Band banked a lot of cash by making it really easy to “play” popular music without having to learn an instrument. Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox removed the need for a controller, allowing the person to become the controller. I don’t know who will create the first mind-controlled music technology, but somebody’s going to do it.

Brace Yourselves

Cool meant something totally different back then. Don’t judge.

As with any change, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Unfortunately, music will experience yet another Regrettable Period in which we have to learn how to use this new technology properly. I predict some gross and unsavory abuse of the technology, much like the ubiquity of terrible synthesizers in the 1980s or prevalence of auto-tuned vocals since Cher started believing in life after love. But some lucky artist is going to enjoy the honor of being known as the one that mastered this wonderful new system, thus becoming the “Grand Master Flash of whatever-this-thing-may-become-known-as.” Someone will figure out how to use it right, but it might take some time. In the meantime, wear earplugs.

Why We’ll Argue About This

At first, this newfangled gadgetry will be heralded as the end of “real” music and musicianship. The critics will say it’s too easy and not authentic music. Traditional composers and invested players will complain that no one has to learn how to write or play anymore. And much in the same way that digital was derided as a poor substitute for analog, purists will say that this cerebral form loses something in the process. Those arguments all might be right, but there may be a bigger issue lurking.

Trapped “In The Box”

When the process of making music becomes entirely internalized it will be really great because of it’s purity and singularity of thought, but will it simultaneously suffer from lack of external influences? When digital recording became popular, the question was often asked by one artist or engineer to another: “Was this all done ‘in the box?’” – meaning: was the audio signal created, mixed, and mastered on the same computer? Early on, music created entirely in this fashion lacked the beneficial effects that analog systems inherently imparted upon the audio signal. Today, the line has been blurred by better technology, so it’s harder to tell if something was recorded analog or digital. Only engineers with “golden ears” can hear the difference (even then I suspect shenanigans). At any rate, the question still remains: What benefits will be lost due to the signal remaining “in the box” of your head?

Potential Musical Influences

  1. People – The comradery, inspiration, ideas, criticism, differing views, and friction found when people work together often makes for better music. Being alone can lead to dead ends and boring or bad music. Collaboration can make beautiful things.
  2. Hardware – Though they are inanimate objects, the instruments and devices used to make music come with their own inspirations, challenges, rewards, frustrations to overcome, and occasional good glitches. Sometimes a piece of gear has to be conquered and relinquishes its magic upon defeat.
  3. Criticism – The critic is the archenemy of the artist, but every good story needs a villain. Without judgement, no work is ever as best as it can be. Words are often revealed for their folly only after they’ve left the head.
  4. Movement – Music and movement are very strongly related. When making music, movement is both part of the instigation of sound, but also a reaction to the sound being created. Performance and dance are like cousins. So if movement is not necessary for the creation of music, what effect will that have on the final product?

Good Things Will Happen

A lot of things can go wrong in this new system, but a lot of things can go right too. Eventually we’ll work out the kinks. We’ll figure out the typical pitfalls. We’ll master this medium like we have with all the others. One day amazing music will be generated using nothing but musicians’ brains. I’m hedging a bet it will be the direct output of some ridiculously young Mozart’s mind that will blow us all away. Perhaps this new interface will teach us something about how our brains work. Maybe it will allow us to communicate more precisely on ever deeper levels. What if it develops into a new universal language? Hmm.