Is Orchestral Noise Damaging Hearing?

Michael was the recipient of Prosig’s 2014 Project Prize at Southampton University. Here is a short description of the project that won him the award. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Having played the trumpet for over 10 years I have left many an orchestral rehearsal with my ears ringing courtesy of the onslaught of noise from the trombone section behind me. In searching for a topic for my final year research project as part of my studies at Southampton University, the risk of hearing loss to orchestral musicians seemed a natural choice.

Review of the literature on this topic suggested that many professional musicians were unaware of the potentially damaging noise levels they are being exposed to as part of their work. The study focused on orchestral musicians in the UK, employing two main research methods.

Noise exposure mapping

Firstly, noise exposure measurements were taken at 12 locations within a university symphony orchestra. These measurements were taken using noise dosimeters which were worn by selected musicians during rehearsals. At six of these locations a noise dose of over 100% was calculated, based on the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005; at these positions the average noise level was over 90dBA. The figure below shows a rough noise map of the orchestra based on the measured noise levels.

Noise map of the orchestra

Figure 1 – Noise map of the orchestra for the calculated three hour rehearsal average (in dB) for each location of the dosimeter. Hatched areas represent predicted values.

The noise levels measured were dependent on many factors including the layout of the orchestra, piece being played, ability of musicians and the acoustic environment of the rehearsal room.

However, the orchestra used for the measurements was not dissimilar to many professional orchestras in this country.

Impact on hearing

The second element of this study involved measuring the hearing of members of the brass section before and after rehearsals to determine if a temporary threshold shift (TTS) occurred as a result of the rehearsal. Pure Tone Audiometry tests were used to measure the musicians’ hearing. Unfortunately, the tests could not be carried out in the usual sound proof rooms; instead quiet lecture theatres were used. As the change in a musician’s hearing was being investigated rather than their absolute hearing threshold, the sub-optimal test conditions were not a significant limitation, though they were taken into account.

The data gathered were suggestive of a small TTS, although this was not shown to be statistically significant. More tests over a longer period would be required to establish more certainly whether brass musicians experience a TTS in their hearing from an orchestral rehearsal.

Are musicians at risk?

Although there was not clear evidence of a TTS as a result of orchestral rehearsals, the measured noise levels were clearly high in some sections of the orchestra. Professional musicians can spend a significant period of time each week in orchestral rehearsals. Some research has suggested that personal practice can produce similar sound levels to those measured in orchestral rehearsals. If this is the case, it is likely that some musicians are regularly being exposed to potentially damaging noise levels.

It has been suggested in similar research that music is less damaging to hearing than industrial or other noise and therefore should be treated differently. The results from the TTS experiment in this study may perhaps support this view. Further research is needed into this area before it can be stated with any certainty that musicians are at a greater risk of noise induced hearing loss than the general population.

Completing the project was an enjoyable experience. With many professionals in the field of acoustics coming from a musical background it was interesting to research a subject which linked my two fields of study. Given that musicians rely on their hearing for their income, I hope further, more conclusive research is undertaken in this field so that the risk of hearing loss to musicians can be mitigated or minimised.

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Michael Ashcroft

Michael graduated from Southampton University’s Institute of Sound and Vibration Research (ISVR) in 2014 with a BSc in Acoustics and Music. He has a particular interest in the acoustics of concert halls and music venues. Michael is currently working as a Graduate Engineer with WSP | Parsons Brincherhoff’s London acoustic team.

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5 thoughts on “Is Orchestral Noise Damaging Hearing?

  1. Dieter Giese

    Very interesting research. I have a friend who does audiometric testing for a large metropolitan symphony orchestra and has found significant hearing loss over time in musicians who sit in front of the horn/trombone sections. I have a personal interest in this subject as an instructor in a recording engineering program. In addition to the noise dose map you published, do you also have data on the peak levels? You are right, this area needs more research, there are many unanswered questions.
    Dieter Giese

  2. Michael Ashcroft

    Hi Dieter, thanks for your comments. Unfortunately I was not able to measure peak levels in the orchestra but I think it would be another interesting area to pursue, particularly in the percussion section.
    Michael Ashcroft

  3. Sue Mason

    An interesting project. It certainly rings true with me. I was an amateur viola player for about 20 years, sat directly in front of some very loud brass sections. I now have some deafness in my left ear which I believe may have been caused by the enthusiastic trombones!

  4. David

    I play a french horn in a church orchestra. Rehearsal is about an hour a week and we play three services, 20 minutes each, most Sundays. I sit in front of trumpets. In addition to the normal acoustic instruments we use electronically amplified guitars and keyboards. The real problem is the guys on the sound board who have the “louder is better” disease. I’ve measured 106 dB on my music stand. I use fitted musicians earplugs. Usually I’ve got a 25 dB cut in my left ear and 15 in my right.

    1. Dieter Giese

      I have a small sound company that specializes in acoustic music performances but also includes electric guitars and basses at times. I try to keep levels at 85 dB(A) average. Audiences seem to approve. I hope it catches on.
      Using the -6dB per doubling of distance rule, the sound from the trumpets is likely 6dB louder at your ear than it is at the music stand. How loud is it with only the horn section and no PA at all? Dieter

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