The Evil Piccolo Player

I had a case last week where a violinist came in complaining about years of violin exposure, and oh yeah, as an afterthought, there is an evil piccolo player to my left. (Actually the piccolo player is very nice, but his instrument is “acoustically evil”.)

After taking a case history to ensure that there are no other noise or music exposure sources in the environment, I led her in to the audiometric booth, only to find that her right ear hearing was absolutely perfect (at least her pure tone acuity was absolutely perfect at 0 dB HL). She did have an audiometric notch however at 6000 Hz in her left ear of 25 dB HL.

Well, most violinists have a slight asymmetry in their hearing in this region, as do drummers because of the proximity to the high hat cymbal on the left side. Most, but not all violinists, hold their fiddle off to the left side. A notable exception is Canada’s Ashley MacIssac (no relation to Ashely Madison), an east coast fiddler who holds his violin “backwards”. Before knowing this fact, one of Canada’s leading magazines had done a feature story on him showing that he was holding his violin off to the right side. I was about to dash off a letter to the editor saying that they obviously got the negative of his photograph turned around when my son (who knows infinitely more about music, and most things), explained to me that Ashely MacIssac does indeed hold his violin off to the right side.

Well, back to the audiogram. Typically when one does see an audiometric asymmetry, one also sees some hearing loss in the better ear- it is common to see a 20 dB notch in the good ear, and a 35 dB or so notch in the left ear. However, in this case, the good ear was just too good and this violinist was a well-established tenured musician with a large orchestra with many years of service under her belt (under her chin?).

I think that we have all guessed by now that the culprit is the evil piccolo player, being off to the left hand side, blowing much of the sound towards the violinist’s left ear.

Three questions immediately come to mind:

  1. Does this musician require hearing protection?
  2. Is this just a case of a musician being not that susceptible to hearing damage, and perhaps just moving the piccolo player into a closet would solve things?
  3. What exactly is the direction of the damaging output of the piccolo?

Three answers:

  1. I am not sure that the musician does require hearing protection but having said this, pure tone audiometry is a rather gross and simplistic measure of auditory function. I did perform optoacoustic emission testing and there was no real additional information- the function of the left ear was poorer than that of the right ear, but given the inherent variability of inter-subject variation of optoacoustic emissions, I could not say definitely that the better ear was any different than any other person of that age who was not a musician. I ended up recommended musicians’ earplugs as this was a desire of the musician and I had previously seen almost all of her colleagues previously and they were quite happy, but I am not sure that they were absolutely required.
  2. I do feel that this musician, for whatever unexplained (genetic?) reason is not as susceptible to music or noise exposure as others which may account for the absolutely perfect pure tone thresholds in the right ear. We see this all of the time with industrial noise exposure from factories and indeed statements about differing levels of susceptibility are typically in appendicies of noise regulations and noise models around the world. Indeed, kidnapping the piccolo player and shoving her in to a closet somewhere would be a viable acoustic strategy, but since this is illegal, I would instead advocate that some acoustic attenuator be placed between the piccolo player and the violin section. A sufficiently thick (3/4” to 1” thick) piece of lucite that is “edge on towards the audience” may do the trick. From the perspective of the conductor and the audience, all that would be seen would be a thin strip of lucite that wouldn’t really be noticed. This would provide about 10-15 dB of high frequency sound attenuation for the violinist. While this may not sound like a lot, a 15 dB attenuation means that the violinist would be able to play 32 times as long before the same damage would have occurred without the lucite shield.
  3.  Since the piccolo is a woodwind instrument with holes, much like the flute and the clarinet, the sound emanates out of the last uncovered hole, only when all finger holes are covered would sound be aimed directly at our violinist. In all other cases, the sound flow would be upwards, but with sound radiation in a broad cone away from the piccolo player. The intrepid violinist would still be the target of much of the piccolo output but perhaps not as much as if all sounds were directed towards them.

The short story then is the use of shields to attenuate overly high sound levels and while these are not perfect, they do work quite well for the higher frequency, shorter wavelength sounds. And musicians’ hearing protection is like chicken soup-it couldn’t hurt and in most cases (especially if its like my mother’s chicken soup) can be very helpful.

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.