As a longtime drummer, hearing protection has been a critically important issue for me. Hearing loss and tinnitus (high-pitched ringing of the ears) are very real consequences of repeated exposure to loud sounds. Even today, the mechanics of how our hearing changes are not fully understood, and there are currently no cures for hearing loss and tinnitus. This means that protecting our ears is the only thing we can do to help prevent future problems. We are lucky to be living in this time of increasing awareness and a variety of options for hearing protection. I highly recommend all musicians look into this.
When I arrived to Central Michigan University in 1995 as a first-year music student, I was told that all percussionists in our studio were required to purchase musician's earplugs. This type is custom molded to the ear and uses interchangeable filters which lower the volume without changing the balance of frequencies. At $100 – $200 per pair, it is not a cheap option, especially for a young college student. Yet having these earplugs turned out to be one of the very best investments of my career. Twenty-one years later, I am still using them (I'm on my second pair) for practicing, rehearsals, performances, and any loud environment.
In workshops, I often bring up the topic of hearing protection, and I've been seeing more and more people using earplugs over the years. My first recommendation is to look into the universal fit high-fidelity earplugs by Etymotic. There are other companies making similar products but Etymotic is the one I am most familiar with. At around $12 per pair, these earplugs have the same type of filter as the musician's earplugs. Unlike the cheaper foam, rubber, or wax earplugs, the hi-fi plugs allow you to hear more accurately with a reduction of around 20 dB. Hearing clear music and conversation keeps everyone using earplugs rather than taking them out in order to hear better (completely defeating the purpose of earplugs).
Musician's earplugs are well worth the effort and price tag to purchase. They are comfortable, nearly invisible, and can be customized with interchangeable filters for various situations. The first thing you need to do is to find an audiologist in your area that offers musician's earplugs. For my current pair, I went to Hawaii Professional Audiology in Honolulu. I chose this place because they were used to serving the Honolulu Symphony musicians. When you go in for your appointment, a foam material is used to take your ear impression, which then gets sent to the company making the earplugs. While I recommend this option to almost everyone, there are two situations I can think of where you might want to wait. The first is if you are going through significant weight change, which would likely affect the fit later on. The second category for waiting is younger people who are still growing, for the same reason.
There might be an element of old curmudgeon-ness involved, but I feel like loud volume situations are increasing everywhere: concerts, movies, earbuds, awful restaurant acoustics, TV commercials, and so on. I always keep my earplugs with me and am constantly grateful for this technology. After thirty-plus years of drumming, I feel fortunate that my hearing is in relatively good condition. Without a doubt, consistent use of hearing protection over the years is the biggest reason.
1990 Modern Drummer Article: An Occupational Hazard