For many professional musicians in Nashville, hearing loss is an accepted side effect that comes with making a living surrounded by electric guitars, amps and ear monitors.
But once a musician’s hearing starts to go, treatment can be complicated. Professional musicians often conceal their hearing loss for fear it will negatively impact their careers.
And many who do seek help say that the typical hearing aid is inadequate.
“Most hearing aids are designed to pick up sound in a narrow range so that people can hear their family members and loved ones talking,” said Dr. Todd Ricketts, a well-published hearing aid researcher and professor at Vanderbilt University. “And musicians obviously seek more than that.”
With that in mind, Kristen D’Onofrio, one of Ricketts’ doctoral students in Vanderbilt’s audiology program, has launched a study aimed at understanding the effects of hearing loss on musicians.
D’Onofrio, a musician herself who played drums in jazz and rock bands, has been conducting tests of Nashville musicians with hearing loss as part of a research project she hopes will spur an entire career studying the issue.
“The hope is that this kind of research can, in some way, contribute to improving hearing aid technology and refine hearing aid fittings for the musician population and for those who appreciate music-listening,” D’Onofrio said. “I was attracted to this research because of my love of music and my own background playing drums. I try to empathize with musicians about the significance of music and how important it is to them.”
It’s an issue that especially resonates in Nashville because of the music community here.
MusiCares, the nonprofit that helps connect musicians to health care, sees many longtime musicians confronting hearing loss, according to Debbie Carroll, executive director. MusiCares helped refer musicians to Ricketts and D’Onofrio for the study at the Dan Maddox Hearing Aid Research Lab at VU’s Bill Wilkerson Center.
“It’s something our clients talk about frequently and are concerned about,” Carroll said.
Nashville drummer Vince Barranco fits into that category. His 35-year career has spanned Mississippi, New York and Nashville playing for artists from virtually every musical genre.
About 15 years ago, he began to notice his hearing was damaged. Though he now has hearing aids and has been able to continue working, Barranco wishes he had taken greater care to protect his hearing over the years.
“It’s an industry and an art with a problem you have to be aware of,” Barranco said. “When you come in at night, you know if your ears are ringing. ... But you get to a level during a gig and the energy is such that you have to deliver, it can get loud.”
The Vanderbilt study involves conducting hearing tests on musicians and comparing the results to those of nonmusicians. The hope is to determine what musicians need from their hearing aids.

Reach Nate Rau at 615-259-8094 and on Twitter @tnnaterau.

How you can get involved

Recruiting for the first phase of the study is closed, but research pertaining to hearing loss and musicians is ongoing. If you are interested in being involved in future research, contact the Dan Maddox Hearing Aid Research Laboratory at 615-936-5087 or via email at