Is the French horn really that much more dangerous?

Anyone who follows the Internet frenzies about any number of topics or reads blogs or even old-style paper newspapers could not help noticing that the past week has seen tons (tonnes in Canada) of coverage about an old topic that has been revisited.  Some of the coverage is valid and other aspects are silly.

The valid part is that ALL classical musicians are more subject to music-induced hearing loss- not just French horn players- and that they typically receive a larger “dose” of music exposure than their rock and roll colleagues.  The silly bit is that this is not new.  Well-performed research from the 1970s and 1980s show this clearly.

Work done with the Chicago Symphony in 1990 (published in 1991) shows that 52.5% of all classical musicians have a permanent music-induced hearing loss.  Work that I performed in 2012 (Russo, F.A., Behar, A., Chasin, M., & Mosher, S., Noise exposure and hearing loss in classical orchestra musicians, International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics  (2012),  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ergon.2012.11.001) with Canada’s National Ballet also shows that French horn players are the ones who are most susceptible to music-induced hearing loss.

I must admit that when we began this research I had commented that I thought it was silly and that anyone who reads the literature already knows the answer.  Nevertheless, I did get involved in that study because I knew that it would assist the musicians at the ballet in convincing management that “something needs to be done.”  “Verdi can’t be loud! It’s not Rock and Roll” would be something that would be heard, and I suppose that more data (even if it’s about the same old thing) may be useful in creating a healthier acoustic working environment.  Verdi, Mozart, and even Brahms are all notoriously intense.

So why are French horn players the ones who are bearing the brunt of the exposure?  First let’s look at the word “exposure.”  With noise (and music) exposure it is not just the sound level that is the culprit, but also the duration of the music.  Classical musicians of all stripes perform 6 or 7 times a week (Monday is usually the day off), they practice 3-4 hours a day, rehearse with their orchestra another several hours each day, and then go home and teach students several more hours each day.  And then classical musicians do the same things that everyone else does- they mow their lawn; go to rock concerts; listen to their MP3 players at a high volume while on public transit…

It is true that the instantaneous peak intensity of music is greater in a rock and roll venue than in a classical one, but the duration of classical musicians’ exposure to loud music is substantially longer than that of their rock and roll colleagues.  A rock musician may pick up a guitar on a Saturday evening and then not play any more music for another week or so.  That is far less than classical musicians play.

Another aspect of the “exposure” that a musician receives is the combination of the music  they make and that made by those around them.  Rock and roll musicians play on a relatively large stage and can move about (except for the drummer).  In contrast, classical musicians sit in a chair with other musicians sitting immediately in front of them, behind them, to their right, and to their left.  They may be seated downwind from other noisy instruments or in a relatively “safe” location.  In most cases, a classical musician has a living area of about 9 square feet (3’ x 3’), and at times, even less.

In short, it would be almost impossible for any classical musician to maintain their hearing without protection.

French horn players are an interesting group in themselves (actually the history of the name of their instrument- French horn is in itself interesting, but that’s another blog).  French horn players prefer to refer to themselves as “horn players” and not French horn players, but let’s get back to the issue at hand.

Horn players sit downwind of the evil trumpet section and also adjacent to their other horn colleagues.  They receive exposure from their own instrument, their friend sitting next to them, and from an almost laser beam-like exposure from the trumpets to their rear.

Sound waves tend to emanate from the bell of a musical instrument in different ways, depending on the frequency.  For low-frequency sounds, the sound emanates in all directions at once- almost as if there were no brass tubing or bell at all.  If I were to measure the sound level behind a trumpet player, in front of a trumpet player, and beside the trumpet player, for low-frequency sounds, there would be minimal differences.   That is, for low-frequency sounds, the trumpet bell is non-directional.  Sounds like room loud speakers, doesn’t it?

The situation is quite different for the more treble notes emanating from the bell of a brass instrument.  Like our vocal tract, for the higher frequencies, the tube (horn or trumpet tubing and bell, or the human vocal tract) acts like a “wave guide” causing the sound to come out like a laser beam.  If I were to measure (and I have) the directionality of a treble note coming from the trumpet or horn, it is quite directional.  If I measured the sound from the rear, or even a little bit below and above the playing plane of the instrument, there would be significant (6-8 dB) differences in sound level.

And, unfortunately for them, horn players sit immediately downwind from the trumpet section, downwind from their colleagues to the sides of them, and downwind from their own musical instrument.

This is not new, but it’s important to rehash and occasionally remind ourselves that just because something may sound beautiful doesn’t mean it isn’t quite dangerous.

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.

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