Belfast music composer Sheridan Tongue’s brush with tinnitus: ‘It was the equivalent of a painter being unable to see the colours. I couldn’t make out the textures in the sounds’

Emmy award-winning film and television composer Sheridan Tongue likens a musician unable to hear to an artist with failing sight unable to paint on canvas.

t’s an apt analogy for him. Fifteen years ago he feared a brush with noise-induced tinnitus would ruin his ability to compose music — his passion, and ultimately his career.

The 54-year-old had been a guest at a friend’s birthday party where a live band had been performing. The music was loud and throbbing and he left with his ears ringing.

Sheridan, who grew up in Belfast and divides his time between London and the US, said initially he had experienced ear ringing after attending concerts before and thought nothing of it.

He expected the ringing to have stopped when he woke up the next day, but it persisted.

This was something he had never experienced before.

“It was really bad in my ears. I went into my studio and I couldn’t compose and immediately it scared me, because I thought: ‘Have I lost my career?’ My career is how I earn my living in making music,” he said.

“It was the equivalent of a painter being unable to see the colours. I couldn’t make out the textures in the sounds. I couldn’t make out things… I couldn’t add different parts in my arrangements.

“It really was a scary experience. And I thought: ‘Is this going to last forever? Or is this going to go away’. Thankfully, the next morning, by that time my ears had been rested, and it had gone away.”

At risk was a successful career.

He is internationally acclaimed for his dramatic soundtracks for TV drama, films, and documentaries, scoring some of UK television’s most prestigious series including Silent Witness, DCI Banks, Spooks and Sea Of Souls.

Last year he picked up a prestigious Emmy for his work on quirky PBS film The Last Artifact, about scientists from all over the world searching for a way to modernise the measurement system, specifically the kilogram.

His CV also includes Bafta winner Wounded (BBC); lavish natural history series Atlas 4D; and Stephen Hawking’s Into The Universe (Discovery) and Favourite Places (Curiosity Stream), as well as Wonders Of The Universe (BBC).

Most recently he has composed an edgy, visceral score for Narco Wars (National Geographic) and a dramatic soundtrack for the 13-part Meerkat Manor: Rise Of The Dynasty (AMC+ and BBC America).

Last year he produced the stirring soundtrack for Spotlight On the Troubles: A Secret History, a contribution he described at the time as an honour, telling this newspaper: “When I first viewed a rough cut of Spotlight On The Troubles: A Secret History there was an immediate resonance with me.

“The images were so powerful I felt that the films did not need a large emotional response from me, the story was all already there, so I felt that my music should be observational rather than emotional.

“It was one of the biggest challenges of the score — to somehow retain a neutral but engaging tone to the music without it getting too emotional.”

Nuance in sound is crucial to a musician, and tinnitus interferes with that process.

It’s a condition that results in ringing or buzzing that an individual experiences from inside their ears, rather than from an external source.

It can be the result of a variety of causes: ear infection, build-up of wax, or exposure to loud noises.

For some it can be a minor nuisance, but for others it can be debilitating ; the constant buzzing or whooshing sounds can lead to mental health problems.

In 2019 the The British Tinnitus Association estimated the number of people living with the condition in the UK is one in eight (13.2%).

For musicians — with live gigs, long tours, and stints in the recording studios — tinnitus is something of an occupational hazard.

Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl recently revealed he had the condition in both ears from years of performing on stage.

Despite this, the veteran drummer, guitarist and songwriter — who began his career in Scream before finding fame as sticksman for Nirvana — has eschewed ear monitors on stage, insisting they take out the “natural atmosphere sound” and “messes with your spatial understanding of where you are onstage”.

For Sheridan, however, he swiftly took a different approach.

He explained: “It had gone away but from that point on I just thought that I have to protect my ears.

“I made the decision to go out and buy custom-made earplugs and I carry them on me when I go to a concert or a gig, or I go to the cinema and it’s very loud — any event where there’s a danger of slightly loud music.”

When he’s composing music in the studio, he never listens to sounds at a loud level.

“I think people would be surprised how quite I listen. It’s harder to make things sound good when they’re quieter,” he added.

“Everything sounds good loud as a rule, so I work hard to get things to sound good when they’re at a lower level

“And because I’m sitting in a music studio 10, 12 hours a day — that’s a long time to be exposed to louder levels.

“It’s just better health-wise to be listening to a lower level.”

The music industry could “definitely do a lot more” to highlight ways to protect people’s aural health.

“Everyone who earns a living within the industry should be aware that hearing damage is something you can’t undo. Tinnitus after a loud gig is a sign that your ears are telling you that they’ve been permanently damaged,” he said.

“Now you may not notice the next day, or two days later, but damage has been done and it will add up over time.

“And if you’re earning your living through music — and effectively your ears — it could have a devastating impact on your career. And it just doesn’t affect your career, it affects your whole life.

“Sometimes tinnitus doesn’t go away. And it can be totally devastating.

“I caught it early and I don’t suffer from it now, but occasionally when I listen to music, or I’m in a club, I can hear my ears starting to hurt. I will just walk straight out or put my earplugs in.

“I’m a lot more aware of the environment that I’m in. Even in a restaurant where there’s a lot of hard surfaces, I’ve noticed even there it might be an issue.”

He said tinnitus is not a topic often talked about among his peers, and at music events he finds hardly any of them wear ear protection.

“The ones that do will quite often have had an experience like mine,” he added.

“I wish that I’d taken more steps when I was younger in my 20s. It took this bad experience to learn to protect myself.”

Keen to raise awareness, Sheridan is an ambassador for the British Tinnitus Association, which provides support to sufferers.

“They gave me advice and talked to me about it,” explained the Belfast man, who is currently working on a major project for Netflix.

“I found them very helpful. Occasionally when I can do social posts, and when I can reach out to my peers, I will, to urge them to be aware. The charity does a great job.”

He wants the industry to provide custom-made earplugs for those working in music.

“If there was an organisation that could provide these, it would make a huge difference,” he pointed out.

Another charity offering assistance is Help Musicians.

It operates a hearing health scheme for those over 18 and whose main income is earned via music.

It offers one-to-one access to specialist hearing assessments and a custom-made set of earplugs for £40 (£30 for Musicians’ Union members).

Liam Hennessy, the organisation’s head of welfare, said the focus is on “prevention rather than cure”.

He said: “It’s something that’s really key to get across with this, given that it is preventative.

“Noise-induced hearing loss is 100% irreversible, but is 100% preventable. It can be prevented by wearing earplugs.

“Musicians and those working at concerts or in studios should be conscious of how long they’re exposing their hearing to sound.

“We’re trying to ensure musicians have a long and healthy career.”

He cites research carried out by Help Musicians in conjunction with BTA published last year that revealed over half surveyed had reported ear ringing.

“Tinnitus often comes with other issues as well… that might be stress, mental health issues, anxiety and an inability to relax, an inability to sleep,” he added.

“Less than half of musicians said they always wore, or usually wore, ear protection, and a quarter of them said they never wore protection.

“Being a musician, your health is massively important for your career, your livelihood, but also your wellbeing.

“Our message is: always protect your hearing — it’s your best asset.”

Belfast Telegraph