In an effort to help those with “ringing in their ears” explain their suffering to loved ones and friends, composer Brent Michael Davids has written a piece for string quartets that uses music to convey the sound and discomfort of tinnitus.

Tinnitus is a hearing problem that afflicts some 50 million Americans. Though it seems to have some hereditary basis, it is usually caused by exposure to loud and/or persistent noise at work. It is a common problem among construction workers.

Tinnitus is the perception of noise when no noise is actually present. It is caused by interference in the natural function of a person’s hearing due to head or neck trauma, tumors, damage to parts of the ear, sinus infections, wax build-up, medication side effects or cardiovascular disease.

For Laborers, the most common cause of tinnitus is worksite noise exposures. Both occasional exposure to very loud, sharp noise and steady, prolonged exposure to lesser noise can destroy the tiny hair cells – known as cilia – that grow in the ear canal. Once destroyed, these do not grow back.

Though many people with tinnitus report a constant ringing in their ears, many others experience a hissing, roaring, whistling, chirping or clicking sound. It can be constant or intermittent, single or multi-toned and quiet or roaring.

Davids himself suffers with tinnitus, as does at least one of the musicians who recorded his piece. When it is performed, musicians take turns maintaining the constant, background high A sound that runs throughout the entire piece. That high A is the sound that Davids hears in his own ears.

By writing and performing the Tinnitus Quartet, Davids hopes to provide a way for friends and families of tinnitus sufferers to hear and experience tinnitus. Some segments of his work can be heard in a review on National Public Radio by Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr.

Controlling construction site noise and limiting Laborer exposure to it are two important goals of the LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division. Hearing loss protection programs and publications are available through the LHSFNA Noise pages. More information is available from the American Tinnitus Association.