When the Royal Opera House lost its appeal over the life-changing hearing damage suffered by one of its viola players, the whole issue of musicians and exposure to noise was suddenly in the news. The musician had been sitting in front of the trumpets of the 18 strong brass section of the Royal Opera House’s orchestra during a rehearsal of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and suffered from ‘acoustic shock’ as a result.
In the UK, the Control of Noise at Work Regulations has set limits for exposure to noise. The lowest level for action is 80 dBA averaged over a working day. When this level is exceeded, employers must provide information and training and make hearing protection available. When the upper level of 85 dBA is exceeded, then employers need to take action to reduce the noise and hearing protection becomes compulsory. However, the music and entertainment sectors are unique from other areas of work in that high noise levels and loud special effects are often regarded as essential. Music frequently exceeds 80-85 dBA, but what counts in assessing the risk to hearing is the average exposure. A study measuring levels of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra found that they ranged on average, from 70-99 dBA. The exposure varied depending on where the musicians were sitting within the orchestra, and also what pieces were being played.
Whilst it is the employers in the music and entertainment industry who are primarily responsible for complying with the Noise Regulations, it is also important that those who control sound levels (conductors, musical directors, sound engineers and sound technicians), recognise their responsibility for providing a safe workplace. However, it’s a complex issue with many differing aspects: types and size of venues, seating layout, type of music, to name but a few. Whether you are a professional orchestral player, or play for fun in a band, all musicians need to be aware of the harmful effects of prolonged exposure to noise. Here, Fiona Butterworth, Audiologist and bassoonist, talks to us about hearing protection.
Having started learning the violin at the age of five (before finding my true musical calling as a bassoonist six years later), it wasn’t until I began my audiology masters that I started to consider the need for hearing protection in music. My acoustical engineering undergraduate degree covered the importance of hearing protection (generally in a more industrial setting), but I hadn’t given it much thought as to how this translated to my orchestral experiences. Over the years, I hadn’t noticed other students, teachers, or lecturers using hearing protection, but as soon as I started wearing it myself, many of my orchestral contemporaries would ask for advice or recommendations on what they should be using.
Fast forward to today, where I am working at Harley Street Hearing and Musicians’ Hearing Services. I get to work with musicians and those related to the industry, educating about the need to maintain hearing health with regular hearing tests and the use of hearing protection. I have been able to upgrade my own hearing protection from the universal fit hearing protection more conveniently priced for students, to the longer-term investment of custom-made hearing protection. Recently, I had a woodwind sectional for one of the ensembles I play with. It wasn’t until the end of the rehearsal that the conductor admitted to me that they had been concerned when they spotted me putting my hearing protection in at the start of the rehearsal. They thought it would have hindered my ability to rehearse but were surprised to see it hadn’t affected my playing at all – hopefully there’s a converted musician there!
Any level of sound is safe, but only for a limited amount of time; the louder the sound, the shorter the time you can be exposed to the sound before the risk of hearing damage occurs. It is important to also consider how often you are in that environment, as noise exposure accumulates over time. Taking steps to protect your hearing reduces the risk of the changes that can occur. These can occur in the form of, but are not limited to; changes in hearing thresholds, tinnitus (an involuntary perception of sound originating in the head), hyperacusis (an increased intolerance or sensitivity to loud sounds), diplacusis (a difference in pitch, heard between the ears or in the same ear). Unfortunately, these changes are permanent, but thankfully they are preventable.
While there are various options to help manage noise exposure (such as changing the seating arrangements for rehearsals and concerts and ensuring you get enough rest time between events of noise exposure), the best thing to help you keep your hearing in check is get some hearing protection. Hearing protection comes in various forms (foam plugs/universal-fit/custom-made) and reduces the level of sound that reaches your ears, meaning that you can be safely in that environment for a longer period of time.
Harley Street Hearing and Musicians’ Hearing Services provide advice on hearing protection, tinnitus therapy and specialist technology for those affected. We also run the Musicians’ Hearing Health Scheme, supported by Help Musicians UK and The Musicians’ Union. The Musicians’ Hearing Health Scheme provides a subsidised appointment including a consultation, hearing test and custom-made hearing protection.
Custom-made hearing protection have a number of filters to choose from to ensure that the hearing protection is suitable for the environments you are in. They should allow you to continue working in that environment while providing the appropriate level of protection.
While it is a quick and easy fix to protect your hearing, it can take time to get used to the new experiencing of wearing the plugs in your ears. Please consider how long you have already been learning your instruments or working in these noisy situations and give your brain a chance to understand the environment through this new level of hearing!
Fiona Butterworth MSc RHAD, Audiologist
Information about Harley Street Hearing: www.harleysthearing.co.uk
Information about Musicians’ Hearing Services: www.musicianshearingservices.co.uk
Musicians’ Hearing Health Scheme: www.hearformusicians.org.uk/how-it-works