Musicians Earplugs In The Orchestra

For years, rock musicians have been talking openly about their exposure to loud music and ear protection. Recently this issue has been raised once again, this time in relation to classical musicians. Studies reveal that the average noise level in the orchestra during certain pieces of music is just below the level of a pneumatic drill and the upper permitted exposure level of the European noise-at-work regulations. Whilst many conductors are reconsidering the definition of ‘fortissimo’, performers are encouraged to wear purpose-built musicians earplugs both during rehearsals and performances.

Classical musicians have been unwilling to embrace the opinion that their profession can cause hearing loss, though the latest research has revealed that to be the case. Some of them believe they won’t be able to play at the same level if they use earplugs. At the same time, orchestra directors have to observe the noise regulations which were initially written for factory and construction site workers who are exposed to the noise coming from external sources. The fact that musicians produce the noise themselves doesn’t diminish the risk of them developing hearing impairments. Even those who have many years’ experience under their belt say their ears start ringing when a very loud piece is being played. Musicians earplugs still remain a common means of protection in such cases.

Unlike factory workers, classical musicians are exposed to different noise levels. This depends on their instruments, their orchestral seats, concert halls they are performing in and the fluctuations of the piece they are playing. Specially designed decibel-measuring devices are used by the UK’s big orchestras to see which musicians are exposed to most of the noise and when. The management of the Royal Opera House has devised a computer program that measures individual weekly noise exposure based on the musician’s schedule and pieces they play. Those who are at risk are asked to wear musicians earplugswhen very loud passages are played.

Many orchestras are also investing in noise-absorbing panels and putting them at strategic places. Brass and percussion musicians and those who sit near them in the orchestra are usually subject to greater noise exposure. During the loudest parts in rehearsal they are often asked to play more softly and protect the ears with high-technology musicians earplugs. Spacing out and rotating performers in and out of noisy seats is also used to reduce their exposure to potentially damaging noise during rehearsals. Some companies are examining their repertoires to replace loud symphonies with quieter ones. Composers and conductors have been asked to keep the noise issue in mind and cut the number of loud bars to a minimum where possible.

A person starts developing hearing damage when exposed to the noise of 85-90 decibels. The noise in front of speakers at a rock concert reaches as many as 120 decibels and the average level in the orchestra is over 97 decibels when a loud piece is played. Like rock stars, classical musicians run the risk of developing hearing impairment due to consistent exposure to unsafe noise levels. Companies are now installing noise-absorbing screens, reconsidering their repertoires, spacing out musicians in rehearsal and buying high-tech earplugs for performers. Something needs to change.

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