Orchestras and Hearing Loss

When you think of certain occupations that cause hearing damage, what comes to mind?

  • Manufacturing?
  • Construction?
  • Mining?

With half of all workers compensation claims coming from manufacturing and construction, it is perhaps unsurprising that these are the most common dangerous industries for hearing health.

However; you may be surprised to learn that there is another occupation that exists as having unsafe sound levels: that of the professional orchestral musicians. Many people don’t associate orchestras with unsafe levels of sound but talk to any orchestra member and they’ll tell you that the ‘orchestra pit’ can be a very noisy place.

But how noisy is too noisy? According to many published international standards, the safe guidelines for noise at work is no more than LAeq, 8h of 85dB(A) or LC, peak of 140 dB(C). Basically, this means that workers should never be exposed to more than 85dB over an 8-hour shift or peaks of 140dB > Ever.

A hearing-loss lawsuit raises questions about orchestras’ duty to protect musicians

In 2017 Chris Goldscheider, a former violist at the Royal Opera House (ROH) in London, brought a suit against his employer, claiming that the permanent hearing damage he had suffered was directly caused by two rehearsals for Wagner’s “Die Walküre” in 2012.

There is no reason to doubt Mr Goldscheider’s claim that the noise around him reached 137 decibels. Research by Sound Advice, a British working group advising the entertainment industry, found that solo trumpet playing averages around 98 decibels and peaks at 113, from three metres away.

For reference, the pain threshold is 125 decibels and rock concerts peak at around 150. In an opera pit, space is tight, the roof is low and when a Wagner opera finally gets up to something, the whole street knows it.

The judge, Justice Nicola Davies, found and supported Mr Goldscheider’s claim on the grounds that the law made “no distinction…between a factory and an opera house”.

Chris Goldscheider won the case and the Royal Opera House even lost a Court of Appeal challenge after previously being sued for £750,000 for breaching noise at work regulations.

Sotto Voce Methodolgy

Worldwide, in the past, a reasonable number of measurements have been made of the type of sound levels to which Orchestral Musicians are exposed. The conclusions are in conflict when compared in isolation because many of the previous studies have given little data as to true exposure levels over a long period of time. What Sotto Voce can offer as a system, is a complete tool that can trace the detailed information of the sound exposure at various positions within a Classical Orchestra performing for Opera and Ballet in an orchestral environment. It can determine Noise exposure based on type and length of performance, rehearsal etc. on a daily, monthly, or yearly basis for any full season of works. With the accurately logged and real-time results obtained, this can then be compared to industrial criteria for noise exposure, put to analytical use to understand that these sound levels that can be relatively high, as many musicians are often being exposed daily to levels well over 90dB(A).

This analysis of the risk of Noise-Induced damage for orchestral musicians is much more difficult than for process workers or other industrial
exposures due to the large variation in sound levels and exposure times. This is caused by; the type of performance, the acoustic environment, the performance schedule and the rehearsal time. Also it has been commonly claimed that”music is harmonious and lacks the peaks of industrial noise and is therefore not as harmful”.

There is a true need to accurately and simply analyse this risk for these musicians. The first is by evaluating the working environment of musicians, Then – by measuring and analyzing the sound levels and then calculating the equivalent continuous sound exposure levels taking into account the musical instrument played by each musician and his position relative to other players during musical performances and rehearsals. The performance and rehearsal schedule also needs to be taken into account. The result obtained can then be compared (for example), to ISO 1999:2013 Acoustics – Determination of occupational noise exposure criteria, and an estimation of possible noise-induced hearing impairment can be hence evaluated for prevention measures. Evaluation of the hearing threshold levels (HTLs) for each member of the orchestral must be obtained.

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