Steam pipes hissing. Fifty Alka Seltzer tablets fizzing in one glass. A rattlesnake. Overcooked bacon sizzling in a skillet. A constant, distorted, high-pitched tone. Sharp, endless ringing. Or, as Kevin Spacey’s Doc puts it in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, a “hum in the drum.” Baby, the protagonist and title character of one of the year’s ballsiest and best films, suffers from tinnitus after a car crash, described as a constant ringing in the ears. The young getaway driver, portrayed by musician and star Ansel Elgort, uses an endless array of iPods and nifty tunes to drown out the phantom noise, never going anywhere without a salvational soundtrack. And while that depiction is a fascinating take on the relatively little-known concern, the list of descriptions from other sufferers shows that tinnitus is far more mysterious, strange, and unpredictable than even the most knockout blockbuster.
Though each sufferer’s experiences vary, tinnitus can easily be explained as the perception of sound without any actual external noise. The extent of its cruelty is as vast as the ways of explaining the condition: A hiss, a fizz, a sizzle, all cracking through the ears momentarily or developing into a chronic issue for the rest of a person’s life. Dr. LaGuinn Sherlock, a clinical audiologist currently researching the effects of tinnitus on concentration, is the newest board chair of the American Tinnitus Association (ATA). She compares dealing with tinnitus to a candle: “Picture a dark room,” she begins. “If you add one candle to the room, you’ll notice it immediately. If we light a candle in a room full of light, we don’t really notice it.” In essence, tinnitus is a sense of noise that fills a missing gap, even when there’s nothing there to cause it.
In the ear, hair cells act as sensory receptors, detecting the little vibrations of sound waves in the environment. Prolonged exposure to loud noises can damage these cells. According to Sal Gentile, the national support group liaison for the ATA, who lives with severe tinnitus, the hair cells function almost like a field of grass. “Every time you hear music, the grass is being stepped on, and eventually the cells can’t stand up anymore,” he excitedly tells me. “They’re bent completely, like the letter C!” Groups of cells function together to register different ranges of sound, and at times the receptors for an entire range of sound can be damaged, creating a gap. Nature doesn’t like gaps, so that gap is filled in. “There’s nothing to process the sound, so the brain creates this phantom noise,” Gentile adds. “That’s the noises that you’re hearing with tinnitus because it’s a void, blank, nothing there anymore.”
And while that might sound frightening enough, it’s important to remember that those hair cells don’t just grow back like badly trimmed bangs. They’re not regular blades of grass; they’re like synthetic grass, explains Zylani Naudé, an audiologist at the Ear Institute in Pretoria, South Africa. Audiologists can conduct a hearing test to assess whether there is hearing damage or hearing loss. In the case of any negative findings, they can follow with a test on the integrity of the cochlear hair cells. “If there is damage in the hair cells, it can either be due to noise exposure, genetic factors, or environmental,” Naudé explains. “Damaged hair cells give off an echo,” she adds, “which is amplified by the brain.” As soon as you take note of that echo, you think about it, and the more you think about it, the worse it gets: a candle in a dark room.
For that reason, Baby (and other sufferers) may pump their heads full of music or even white noise in order to keep from having any of those gaps — one of many distraction techniques used to aid concentration. Rather than be pained by this constant ringing or hissing in the silence, they’ll be able to focus by drowning it out. Alongside covering the potential gaps in hearing, any music listener will tell you that songs can have the dual function of just making you feel better. “You can offset [the tinnitus] with a different auditory signal … which makes it easier for the brain to shift the resources to something else,” Dr. Sherlock explains. “Music engages the limbic system, which regulates our emotions. That’s why listening to music is more helpful to some people. It helps them relax more, and when they can relax more, they can focus better.”
While the subject of tinnitus in Baby Driver may be alien to countless moviegoers, millions of Americans actually experience the condition every day — and some might not even know it. The US Centers for Disease Control estimate more than 50 million Americans experience tinnitus, with 40% of those facing chronic, even debilitating cases. However, it’s essential to understand that tinnitus itself isn’t a disease, but rather a symptom of something else. In fact, though it is frequently tied to hearing damage and hearing loss, tinnitus is a symptom of those concerns rather than its own disorder — and can occur even when it’s not tied to hearing loss. Somatic tinnitus, for example, takes signals generated from muscle sensors. For these individuals, flexing muscles in certain ways can cause a muscle spasm, which in turn produces the obtrusive phantom noise signal.
Stress is also a trigger, says John Doran, editor at the Quietus, in addition to caffeine consumption, exhaustion, and prolonged exposure to loud, high-pitched, and machine-like music. It should come as no surprise that, alongside people who work in construction and in factories, individuals in the music industry also tend to have high rates of hearing damage and tinnitus. “I can assure you that I am far from the only music journalist who has tinnitus,” Doran says. His own struggles with the ringing sprung from a botched ear-syringe procedure and continue to be prolonged and prompted by loud sounds — including, tragically, certain styles of music. It started out as a very low noise, only audible in very quiet rooms or the dead of night; years of prolonged exposure to bands like Slayer and Sunn0))), he explains, have triggered some serious discomfort and pain.
And while it’s certainly an occupational hazard for some, Doran urges that it’s not unavoidable. “Especially if you work in a noisy environment, the second you get a warning sign like this, you seriously have to act on it,” he says. After a decade of covering metal concerts, he’d lost significant hearing in the mid-frequency range. “For people who have spent their life in nightclubs or rock gigs, people who have worked on machines or a factory line without hearing protection, you get catastrophic drop in the mid range. Then the tinnitus appears as the hearing degenerates.”
As Gentile notes, the appearance of a constant ringing sound can cause intense emotional and psychic trauma for individuals. Simply put, they have been robbed of silence, dealt a hand where they think their quality of life cannot be rectified with a cool on/off switch. Whether through group sessions, phone calls, or conversations, Gentile makes himself available as an example, someone who has learned to live with tinnitus. “Yesterday, I got a call from New York, and the man was crying,” he says. “But I have to say good morning to it, I have to brush my teeth and say hi to it, shower and say hi to it. You know that old saying: get up, get dressed, get out. That’s what I do. I don’t have a choice. It’s either I have a quality of life, or I don’t have a quality of life; that’s my choice.” Some, unfortunately, don’t make that same choice; in fact, Doran insists that there are cases of tinnitus sufferers who have committed suicide.
Editor in chief of The Creative Independent Brandon Stosuy has had his own struggles with tinnitus after growing up in the hardcore scene. “When you’re younger, a teenager, a punk, you don’t really think about that,” Stosuy says. “You just went to shows, and you stood by the speakers. Hundreds of shows. ‘Let’s go see Fugazi and stand by the speakers!’” For Stosuy, the years of gigs haven’t caused hearing loss, but the phantom noise has planted itself in his brain alongside the rest of the world. It helps, he says, that he works in the music industry and lives in a busy city. Like Baby, Stosuy always has a pair of headphones. “I always have something going on in my ears,” he says. “When I’m at work, I sit with headphones on and listen to music all the time. And when I don’t, like when I walk home from work, I live in New York, so there’s always the constant sound there.”
Stosuy and Adam Shore co-founded the Tinnitus Music Series (TMS), a performance series that takes its name and inspiration from the constant ringing. Rather than focus on any one genre or style, TMS highlights musicians that benefit from getting really loud — “Since our ears were already shot, why not?” Stosuy laughs — and all attendees are offered foam earplugs. Stosuy, a father himself, sees an increased emphasis and education on this sort of health concern in schools. Though he’s taken his six-year-old to a soundcheck for Deafheaven, he’s sure to do so with a massive pair of over-ear protection. “I feel like people are more aware now,” he says. “People didn’t always realize cigarettes were harmful either. It’s the same kind of thing.”
Concentration is also at risk for those with tinnitus. Though certain types of music can be a trigger, others prove helpful for drowning out the tones, as well as for aiding in concentration. In Baby Driver, the intense, complicated escape routes that the title character manufactures work in part because he’s able to synchronize them with his favorite songs. In one standout scene, he frantically rewinds a track to just the right moment to time up with an escape, much to the dismay of his eager-to-flee team. Like any good music recommendation, Dr. Sherlock notes that the use of music for aiding concentration needs to be attentive to the individual. “If I tell you to listen to classical music and you hate classical music, that’s not going to help you,” she laughs. “Some people cannot concentrate with music at all, and they’re better off using just broadband white noise. [Whatever] gives just enough distraction from the tinnitus that allows them to concentrate better.”
Because the causes of tinnitus are often uncertain and the onset stretches over a period of time, scientific research and treatments are still under constant development. There is still no cure. In fact, because the sound is rooted mentally rather than physically, there’s a clinical guideline against prescribing medication specifically for tinnitus. However, one solution, according to Naudé, is a hearing aid that has a feature called a “tinnitus noise generator,” which allows patients to dial in the perfect frequency that will help drown out the ringing. This varies from user to user, and it’s not always a surefire remedy.
Another remedy, as suggested by Gentile, is meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), during which negative patterns of thought are challenged in order to alter unwanted behavior. “There were times when I was encountering anxiety attacks like many people do with tinnitus and deep breathing got me out of them,” he explains. “You can work with psychologists on CBT. I learned behavioral modification through CBT, not just deep breathing and mindfulness, but taught myself how to react when the ringing is on full blast.” If that doesn’t help, Gentile suggests a long process called “habituation,” which finds individuals inevitably accepting tinnitus and moving on with their lives.
Exercise can also be particularly beneficial, Stosuy attests, as it produces endorphins that can function particularly well as a concentration tool. For five mornings each week, Stosuy and a friend head over to Saint Vitus, a Brooklyn metal bar where they run sprints and do other exercises. Granted, it’s odd to imagine two men exercising in an empty metal concert venue, but to be fair, the idea of the tinnitus sufferer moving silently through the typically loud venue seems oddly fitting. “Because you’re focused so much on jumping up and down off of a box or whatever you’re doing,” he says, “you’re not really focused on what you hear. I just zone out in those situations.”
Attention requires control. Unfortunately, those with tinnitus often find themselves in situations that are far outside of their control. Going to loud concerts can be a struggle, but one that can be rectified by wearing earplugs, custom earmolds, or other noise protection whenever possible in a high-volume situation. The changing sound limits in place at concerts, festivals, and elsewhere should also ease some of the potential hearing damage. However, that’s not always enough. “Unfortunately, it’s not the volume; it’s the type of sounds that you’re listening to as well, and I think a lot of the really catastrophic damage to my hearing was probably caused by DJing in shitty little clubs with bad PAs,” Doran explains. “The noises are all in the red, and it’s all been overdriven through a PA that should have been replaced years ago.” But replacing PAs can be costly, and even the meager cost of handing out foam earplugs can seem like a burden to club owners.
To be fair, the volume that some bands play at happens to exceed the limits, and that’s admittedly part of the draw. Even so, hearing safety should always be a priority of the artist, the venue, and especially the attendee. “Whether it’s the dancehall producer The Bug or the drone metal band Sunn0))), they play excruciatingly high volumes, and I think they realize that it’s incumbent on them to go a step further and ensure that their audience realize that they recommend you wear ear protection,” Doran says. As a concert organizer with a mission of being loud, Stosuy takes a reasoned approach to these situations. “People will make things loud because they want to be loud,” he says. “There’s music that’s very loud that’s pleasant, when you experience it in a setting that makes sense. And other times it’s clear that people are doing it and there’s really no aesthetic reason to be doing it.” Part of that music being pleasant, though, can include making earplugs available, even if Stosuy can’t personally force every attendee to use them.
A noise in silence, a little-known issue that 50 million Americans deal with daily, tinnitus is as mysterious as the enigmatic Baby that careens through the streets of Atlanta in Baby Driver. While the film wasn’t designed to be the signpost for a new campaign about tinnitus awareness, its titular hero certainly stands as an interesting case study of living life through its pains — one Jon Spencer sing-along at a time. For such an interior struggle, Wright portrays the whole screeching experience without leaning too heavily on cartoonish ringing sounds or stilted explanation. But for the millions facing the reality every day, there’s still so much to say and, more importantly, so much to learn. The mystery goes on, and the phantom persists.