How to Prevent Ear Fatigue While Producing Music

How to Prevent Ear Fatigue While Producing Music How to Prevent Ear Fatigue While Producing Music

Picture this: you’re in the studio, living the dream. You’ve been working on a track all day long.

And now you’re exhausted.

You can’t tell if the snare sounds better or worse than it did a few hours ago. You’ve been sitting on your butt in a chair all day long but it feels like you’ve just finished the London Marathon.

We’ve all been there. Suffering from ear fatigue and/or listening fatigue is no fun. And it can really mess up your workflow.

But ear fatigue is a real thing, and it affects every music producer more often than you’d think.

In this article, we’re going to look at both ear fatigue and listener fatigue (yes, there’s a difference). We’ll dive deep into the science behind how we actively listen, and why that can cause tiredness.

Finally, we’ll look at the strategies you can apply in your work day to minimize listener fatigue and ear fatigue, and keep your music-making fresh.

Ready? Spotify turned off? Let’s start by taking a look at the difference between ear fatigue and listener (or listening) fatigue.

Ear Fatigue vs Listening Fatigue

The terms 'ear fatigue' and 'listening fatigue' are often used interchangeably when talking about audio and sound perception. But there's a subtle difference between the two, and as a music producer, it's important to understand how both occur.

Ear Fatigue

Ear fatigue is a physical condition caused by exposure to loud sounds or noises. A single, loud sound source close to your ear, such as a piercing scream, or a gunshot, can trigger ear fatigue.

Similarly, prolonged exposure to loud sounds or noises can cause ear fatigue. Going to see your mate's deathcore band perform a 1 hour set will trigger it. Or listening to the entire Nickelback catalog on your AirPods at full volume (why would you do that?).

Ear fatigue can manifest itself as a ringing in the ears (tinnitus), a feeling of pressure or discomfort in the ears, muffled hearing, pain, or even in extreme circumstances, bleeding. Ouch.

Essentially, ear fatigue is a physiological response connected to the tiny hair cells in your ears that help you interpret sound.

Listening Fatigue

Listening fatigue, also known as 'listener fatigue' is a psychological and cognitive response to demanding, critical listening effort, or extended periods of listening.

Rather than being related to the hair cells of your inner ear, listening fatigue refers to the mental fatigue you feel after doing something like editing a sloppy drum take for 3 hours straight.

As a music producer your ears are constantly 'on'.

You're not just listening to the drummer, you're concentrating really hard on that cowbell to get it in time. Or you're listening to a mix trying to identify problem frequencies. It's EXHAUSTING.

Remember everyone talking about 'Zoom fatigue' during the pandemic? That was a prime example of listening fatigue in action. While Zoom is great at what it does, the experience doesn't provide us with all the visual and auditory cues we get when having a conversation in person. So we have to focus harder on listening to what's being said over Zoom. The end result: listening fatigue.

Listening fatigue symptoms include feeling mentally wiped out, inability to concentrate, and increased crankiness.

Listening fatigue is common among people with hearing loss, but even those with normal hearing can suffer from it. Including us music producers.

Fatigue Intrigue

At this point it's worth noting that fatigue, aside from being a funny old word to type, is a bit of a mystery when it comes to the science of it all. There's no universally accepted definition of what fatigue actually is unlike, say, a broken leg.

Ear fatigue is not a clinically recognized state, but many professionals in the audio world have been using the term for years.

It's even more difficult to define when talking about listening fatigue - how mentally tired we feel after extended periods of sustained speech processing demands (e.g. that bullsh*t Zoom call you were on) or focused listening.

All this to say that everyone experiences fatigue in a subjective way. Your description of auditory fatigue may sound different to mine. But listen to your body. If you're tired, you're tired.

So how exactly are ear and listening fatigue caused? I think it's important to know how the fatigue sausage is made in order to know how to minimize the effects. So, it's time for the pointy heads to take the stage...

How We Process Sound

The human body is a mad-crazy piece of engineering. our ears take subtle changes in air pressure, and turn it into electrical signals. Inside your noggin, your brain takes these signals and sifts them into sounds, speech, and music. Here's how it works:

Step 1: The Ears

A sound wave travels through the air to reach the outer ear (the auricle, or pinna). The sound then moves through the ear canal to vibrate the ear drum, and then along to the middle ear (tympanic cavity) where bones convert the vibrations to mechanical energy.

This energy is sent along to the inner ear where it moves teeny, tiny hair cells. These cells create electrical signals that are carried to the brain by the auditory nerve (the cochlear nerve).

Step 2: The Brain

Once the electrical signals have been carried to the brain, they need to be processed into things we understand such as speech, sound, music, or Nickelback.

The temporal lobe sits behind your ears and covers both sides of the brain. It's where all the magic happens, thanks to the primary auditory cortex. This cortex receives all the information sent by the auditory nerve and interprets characteristics such as pitch, loudness, and location in space.

The temporal lobe also helps us identify subtle differences in sound patterns so we can distinguish between two people speaking, or two musical instruments playing at the same time. Sound processing in the temporal lobe is also linked to emotional responses to auditory stimuli, as well as sound memory.

Speech comprehension happens in a specific part of the temporal lobe, known as Wernicke's area. It's where we process incoming speech, turn it into meaningful words and sentences, and comprehend what's being said.

Speech production happens in Broca's area, which is located in the lower portion of the left frontal lobe.

It Takes Two

As you can see, the ears are crucial to turning sound waves into something our brains can understand, and the temporal lobe is central in understanding and processing these signals.

It's easy to see now how ear fatigue and listening fatigue can happen, and why they can be two separate responses.

Prolonged exposure to loud noise (or music) can affect the gubbins inside your ears, leading to ear fatigue.

Extended periods of critical listening means more cognitive resources required to interpret all the information coming in to your brain, leading to listening fatigue.

Now let's take a look at what causes both types of fatigued state in the context of producing music.

What Causes Ear Fatigue In Music Production?

As mentioned previously, ear fatigue is brought on by prolonged exposure to loud sound.

Our ears are pretty smart at avoiding damage and protecting themselves. In fact when exposed to any noise, they reduce their sensitivity to sound. This decrease in sensitivity causes the hearing threshold to be increased, referred to as a Temporary Threshold Shift, or TTS for short.

As the name suggests, it's a temporary state. With enough quiet time our ears' sensitivity returns back to normal.

Any amount of listening in the studio will cause some degree of ear fatigue, even at sensible volumes. It's just a fact of life. However, the more you crank up the volume, the more stress you place on your auditory system, and the more ear fatigue you'll experience.

It's a vicious circle.

If you keep abusing your lugholes with lengthy, loud mixing sessions, those tiny hair cells in your inner ear will eventually die one by one. Hearing loss happens naturally as you age, but there's no need to exacerbate things unnecessarily. Otherwise you'll end up needing a hearing aid by the time you hit 30.

What Causes Listening Fatigue In Music Production?

We've learned that listening fatigue is a response to our brain having to work harder at interpreting sound.

If you're just laying down a bass line on a track and calling it a day, you'll likely not suffer from listening fatigue.

But when you've been in the studio all day long, it's a different story. Crafting the perfect synth sound; carefully constructing layers of music; paying attention to all the parts to make sure they compliment each other. These all take up listening space in your head.

And our brains cognitive resources are not infinite. All the different kinds of listening activities you do in the studio take their toll and leave you with fewer resources to pay attention to other tasks.

Background noise makes things worse. Your guitarist buddy sitting in the corner telling the drummer about the Broncos' shameful loss last night is more than just a distraction. You'll need more energy to focus on even the simplest producer chore while they rabbit on.

Even if you're working on your own, just the sheer amount of mental focus you'll be giving to your work will inevitably lead to listening fatigue over time.

Sleep deprivation is also a factor contributing to listening fatigue. If you're pulling all-nighters to get an album finished, you'll probably find your brain having to work harder to hear, leaving you feeling fatigued and in a general state of mental tiredness.

People with hearing loss tend to feel listening fatigue more strongly than those without hearing issues. Even with only a small loss in listening range (something not uncommon among musicians, especially as they get older) listening effort is going to be harder.

Which means that if you do have any form of hearing loss, it'll translate to listening fatigue in the studio.

Strategies For Preventing Ear Fatigue And Listening Fatigue While Producing

OK, so now we know the symptoms and causes of ear fatigue and listener fatigue. Avoiding both is crucial for your overall well-being, and the quality of your work. 

Let’s take a look at some strategies for preventing, minimizing, and recovering from listening and ear fatigue.

Use Good Quality Monitoring Equipment

Invest in the best quality studio monitors and headphones that your budget can afford. This is an area you don't want to skimp on - you only get one set of ears. The better the quality, the more accurate the sound will be. Cheaper gear will make you work harder to hear details in the music, leading to ear fatigue.

Consider Using Acoustic Treatment

Installing acoustic panels in your studio will make for a cleaner listening environment, meaning you'll be less likely to reach for the big ol' volume knob to hear details.

Monitor At Sensible Levels

Just because it can go to eleven doesn't mean it should. Remember, ear fatigue happens when exposed to loud noise (or music) for extended periods. So be smart about your monitoring levels, even if you're working on a smasher.

Remember The 60/60 Rule

Keep your listening volume at 60% of the maximum, for no longer than 60 minutes. After that, take a break of at least 5 minutes.

Take A Break

More than just one. Take regular breaks while you produce. Your ears will recover more quickly the less fatigued they are, and these breaks will give them a chance to rest and stay fresh.

Use these breaks to get away from the studio. Go outside for some fresh air, or do a 7th inning stretch. As Sheryl Crow wisely said, a change will do you good.

Use Reference Tracks

Aside from being good practice in general, using reference tracks while you work can help you maintain perspective on your music. Whether you're mixing or putting parts together, comparing your work to a professional release will prevent your from overworking your music, your brain, and your ears.

Consider Subtractive Mixing

This is the 'less is more' approach to mixing. Rather than adding more and more elements - effects, fairy dust, whatever - to a mix, try taking out anything that's not completely necessary. It'll help maintain clarity, and reduce the need for excessive volume. Hey, you may even find it's a great creative approach to take too!

Set A Realistic Schedule

Be honest with yourself about what you can achieve during a session in the studio, and allow time for your ears (and brain) to rest between sessions. If it takes another week to finish the project then so be it. This strategy is a great one for avoiding both ear and listening fatigue.

Create A Comfortable Workspace

Having a vibey, relaxed working environment isn't just great for Instagram posts. Making your studio as comfortable as possible will help your working day be much easier on you, physically and mentally.

Get a comfortable chair to work in. Have everything you need on a regular basis within arms reach. Spend some time getting things set up for a smooth workflow.

A day spent making sure your cables aren't a bundle of spaghetti will help keep your heart rate at a normal level when you're in the middle of a session and need to re-patch the desk.

Practice Active Listening

You can't be all things to all people all of the time. Similarly, your brain can't be actively listening for wonky frequencies in the drums while tuning the vocals and also comparing mix levels on other tracks.

Instead, focus on specific elements of your music during a set timeframe. Then allow yourself to forget about them. And take a break.

Switch Things Up

Whenever possible, try to alternate between different producing tasks to avoid monotony and reduce mental tiredness. Editing, composing, mixing and recording all require different listening efforts so if the project allows you to do bits of each here and there, take advantage!

Take Care Of Your Mind

Being a producer can be a rough road to travel. Try some mindfulness or meditation exercises to reduce stress. Even some deep breathing will help maintain a focused and calm state while you produce. As well as reducing listener fatigue, you'll have the added bonus of being a nice person to work with!

Take Care Of Your Body

Your mental state is linked to your physical well-being. So look after your body, too.

Get some exercise (you'll have more energy, I promise). Switch out the soda for water (fizzy drinks don't hydrate you like H2o does).

Stick to a regular sleep schedule. If this is impossible due to work/gig schedules, at the very least make sure you're getting some quality nap time in during the day. Sleep deprivation can contribute to listening fatigue. Plus it makes you grumpy. Nobody likes a grumpy bear.

And pay attention to your diet. Pizza much? I love it too, but as much as it pains me to say it, all things in moderation.

Protect Your Ears

Sometimes loud things can't be avoided - concerts, events, your uncle's third wedding.

When you know you can't avoid having your auditory system bombarded with noise, use earplugs to protect your hearing.

If it's possible, try to find time every day to just be in complete silence. Let your ears rest. This can be difficult if you live in a city, but make an effort to seek out those quiet spots: the library, a park, maybe even a church.

The more noise you can avoid the less the chances are that you'll need hearing aids to watch Jeopardy when you're 64.

Preventing ear fatigue is essential for your hearing health, and the quality of your work. Listening fatigue also affects the quality of your work, but can go on to impact other areas of your life if you're tired and unable to make critical decisions. Avoiding both will help maintain your productivity levels, and make producing music a more enjoyable process.


While general fatigue is still somewhat of a mystery to scientists, the folks at Vanderbilt University are leading the way in hearing research. They've done some killer work on hearing and auditory disorders, including the bane of all musicians, tinnitus, and they continue to learn more about how we hear.

One thing we do know is that you only get one set of ears. Look after them like you do your prized Gibson.

And look after yourself too. Listener fatigue, just like any other mental fatigue, is a real thing even if it's tricky to describe accurately. Listen to what your body is telling you, and take a break whenever you need to.

And when you're ready, go forth and maketh the not-too-loud music.

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