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.
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.