Are we wasting our time?

Marshall Chasin
July 19, 2011

If you look through the literature, there are literally tons (or in Canada, tonnes) of articles about the noise levels measured in an orchestra.  I am certainly guilty of this and have been doing this since the mid-1980s.  But, am I wasting my time?

Does it really matter whether the sound level in a large string section is 104 dBA or 102 dBA?  Our recommendations and actions will still be the same… wear hearing protection, at least while rehearsing if not all of the time; and perhaps some environmental strategies (see a recent blog on moving the entire orchestra back 2 meters from the lip of the stage).  What about a sound level measurement of 106 dBA or 99 dBA- again, will this really change what we have to say?  I may sound cynical but why do things that don’t really matter.  Further, it’s not only the intensity but also the duration, hence it’s the dosage of their music exposure that really counts.  A 100 dBA exposure for 15 seconds is not damaging, and with proper hearing protection, 100 dBA may not contribute at all to the music exposure dose (e.g. 100 dB- 15 dB = 85 dB).

If we are lucky enough to get the attention of a large orchestra or even a rock band whose members want to protect their hearing, at most we will have one hour… perhaps during a rehearsal, or an intermission, or pre-show sound check.  Hearing loss prevention is important, but it should not disturb a performing artist’s pre-show routine, whatever that may be (and it can be quite odd… I have been doing this for about 30 years now and some “routines” are not all that routine).

Here is a list of priorities that I have found to be useful in the education of the musician, and you won’t find a sound level assessment among them:

  1. Explaining that intense music is not necessarily loud music.
  2. Alleviate their fears that hearing protection will take away their music- usually when it comes to music, “less is more”.  A 15 dB reduction (e.g. ER-15) means that they can be exposed 32 times as long.
  3. Moderation- Explain that loud music is OK from time to time- if your favourite song comes on, turn up the volume; just reduce it afterwards.
  4. It’s fine to relocate the amplifier/speaker, or even put the trumpet players on risers. I have it on good authority that Mozart would have done this if he were alive today.

Assessing the sound level in the horn section doesn’t really add to anything.  Having said this, it can be fun sitting in a professional orchestra during an actual performance if you’ve never done this before.  Usually orchestras don’t mind AS LONG AS YOU WEAR ONLY BLACK, and don’t bring a tape recorder.

You want to leave the musicians (and the management) with the feeling that some simple things can be done, and in most cases, this will not be expensive.  Hearing protection (and its verification) is a one-time expense and many orchestras can build that into their operating budget- it may take a year to obtain approval but your ally is the musician who needs to sit downwind of the trumpets or near the tympani.

“Politically” there may be an advantage for doing a noise assessment, perhaps to demonstrate that something needs to be done, but I have found that most musicians (classical and rock) are now pretty much aware that hearing loss is a potential issue in their job. Once your foot is in the door though, I wouldn’t waste time measuring something which is well documented and whose results will not end up changing your recommendations.

Just my 2 cents worth (which I should point out is almost 2.1 cents US with the current Canadian/American exchange rate).

Etymotic Research ( …. and no, I am not a share holder) has a wonderful program called Adopt.A.Band.  They have a nice listing of some of the sound levels from a marching band (along with the contribution to the daily music exposure dose).  Here is a sampling:

Mellophone*          92-111 dB

Flute                         100-112 dB

Piccolo                    102-112 dB

Snare drum           102-113 dB

Clarinet                   93-119 dB

Cymbals                  118-121 dB

* I have no idea what a “Mellophone” is but it sure sounds loud!


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