The use of the ER-9 earplugs in a symphony orchestra

I would like to introduce this week’s guest blogger… Ian O’Brien. I think that you will enjoy what he has to say.  Dr. Marshall Chasin, Audiologist

Ian is a full-time orchestral musician, a researcher and an audiologist. He has been working as a musician for over twenty years and advising musicians and orchestras on hearing conservation and audiological issues for the last ten. He co-founded the clinic Musicians’ Hearing Services in Brisbane, Australia.

 

In Australia, professional orchestral musicians are supplied with custom molded earplugs as part of their working conditions.  While statistics vary from orchestra to orchestra, the number of musicians owning plugs is not as high as it could be, and the number actively using them is even lower, despite increasing education efforts.  A similar story is being told around the world, with usage in some European countries as low as 6%1.

Occlusion is an issue of course – and this is an area that often has a satisfactory solution – but many musicians I talk to are unable to cope with the loss of dynamic range that goes with a reduction in sensitivity of 15 or 25dB.  As an orchestral musician myself I had been using ER15s for years before I really started experimenting with different filter types and strengths.  From my seat in the horn section I find 9dB to be excellent for most moderate to heavy repertoire, switching to 15dB when there is a percussion-heavy piece or utilizing an absorbent wrap-around screen, which typically drops the peaks by another 3-6dB.   During solitary I practice I also find 9dB to be ample.

As a clinician seeing musicians and advising them on required attenuation, I am finding good success in prescribing 9dB filters for those who are reticent to use plugs or who have had a poor introduction to the use of plugs.  Musicians generally report a greater ability to blend and to monitor their sound quality with the ER-9s.

If we look at typical exposures in an orchestra that has good policies regarding riser heights, orchestral layout, proximity of musicians and personal screens (and the importance of these measures can’t be understated!), we can see that many musicians would not actually require anything more than 9dB on a typical day, assuming no more than five hours of actual playing.

To do the math, if we assume a ‘safe’ benchmark of 85dB for 8 hours then 87dB is safe for roughly 5hrs.  With 9dB attenuation this means an average level of 96dB would be acceptable.  Of course classical musicians tend to put plugs in an out all the time, but as long as they only do this for the ‘soft stuff’  (i.e. <85dB), then the equation should stay the same. With this in mind and based on sound level readings I have taken2 plus several other long-ranging surveys published over the years, instruments you may like to consider for 9s are the the oboe, viola, violin, basses and cellos and some of the lower brass such as bass trombone, tuba and sub-principal horn players.

Before you do recommend this, however, it is important to note that not all orchestras have comprehensive hearing conservation strategies that use a variety of mitigation measures, and many musicians also expose themselves to a lot of sound outside of the orchestra, so a thorough case history to tease out exposure habits is vital.  If exposure levels are still difficult to judge then something like the personal dosimeter from Etymotic Research is a great guide and invaluable when prescribing required attenuation.  I think it is better to avoid a fall-back position of “I’ll just use 15s or 25s to be sure” because in my experience if the musician is over-attenuated the plugs are more likely to end up in the instrument case when they should be in the ears!

Of course there are always exceptions to every rule, usually in the form of something like a gig with KISS or a Wagnerian opera (who said being a classical musician was boring??!), and higher attenuation should be on hand in the form of an emergency set of ER15 filters, something like the generic ETYplugs and/or a personal (absorbent) screen.

 

References:

1. Huttunen, K., Sivonen, V., & Pöykkö, V. (2011). Symphony orchestra musicians’ use of

hearing protection and attenuation of custom-made hearing protectors as measured with

two different real-ear attenuation at threshold methods. Noise and Health, 13(51), 176.

2. O’Brien, I., Wilson, W., & Bradley, A. (2008). Nature of orchestral noise. The Journal of

    the Acoustical Society of America, 124, 926.

About Marshall Chasin

Marshall Chasin, AuD, is a clinical and research audiologist who has a special interest in the prevention of hearing loss for musicians, as well as the treatment of those who have hearing loss. I have other special interests such as clarinet and karate, but those may come out in the blog over time.