Usually, what separates professionals from amateurs in any endeavor is refinement. In the world of classical music, this maturity and finesse come from years of training, using our ears as our best instructors. Ironically, this careful and close listening can give rise to disturbing long-term damage.
A law passed five years ago by the European Union aimed at reducing noise in the industrial work environment is now forcing orchestral musicians to deal with the issue of hearing loss directly. The entertainment industry came under the scope of this law in February 2008. As I see it, the directive—which intends to regulate the maximum noise level at 85 decibels—is problematic in two ways: it may limit programming, as well as the performance quality of orchestral concerts.
As a point of reference, decibel measurements of some common sounds include a vacuum cleaner (60 db), an MP3 player at half volume (100 db), a chain saw (110 db), and a firecracker (140 db). Auditory pain begins at 120 decibels. Even played solo, orchestral instruments can reach as high as 85 to 110 decibels, and an ensemble can reach anywhere from 125 to 137. This new law could prohibit the programming of an entire list of “loud” composers such as Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, and Wagner. Even Beethoven and Tchaikovsky rise well above the mandate. Musicians argue that the climactic moments of such compositions differ significantly from hours of noise in a bustling factory or construction site. But the law does not differentiate between sound source or duration. This flaw puts many cherished works in the standard canon at risk and could prevent the premiere of new works utilizing intense dynamic ranges. The scope of symphonic music could be changed forever, and not for the better.
Additionally, because the new law would require musicians to wear earplugs for pieces with troublesome volume levels, performance quality could be at risk. Many types of management-supplied earplugs are generic foam, inexpensive, and crudely fashioned. When stuffed in the ears, they block mostly high frequencies, resulting in an abundance of low frequencies and interfering noises, causing music to sound strange and unnatural (for example, as an oboist, I could only hear my tongue hitting the reed). While these earplugs may aid an industrial worker, using them to perform a Mahler symphony is unimaginable.
Clearly, there is little objection to protection against harmful work conditions. Similarly, there is scarce debate that hearing loss is a definite concern for professional musicians. But has the E.U. gone too far in including the entertainment industry in this law? It is one thing to insist on company-provided protection for prolonged exposure to a jackhammer, but it is another to force professional musicians to impede their ability to hear themselves and their colleagues.
Instead of government restrictions on decibel levels and the compulsory use of earplugs, there should be serious and meticulous attention paid to the acoustics of concert halls and how sound is projected from and reflected back towards the musicians. There could also be increased use of protective plastic shields behind at-risk players, and artistic administrations could be creative in pairing larger and smaller pieces together to decrease exposure. Some orchestras are experimenting with alternating musicians on concert halves so that no one is at extended risk. Perhaps musicians should also be fitted for individual, custom earplugs, which dim sound equally across the entire decibel spectrum, protecting ears from overexposure while music still sounds natural, but softer. What is not acceptable is to simply wipe certain pieces from the repertoire or to force musicians to wear substandard earplugs while requiring high standards of performance.
Of course, in addition to hearing loss, musicians face a host of other maladies; tendinitis, focal dystonia, joint problems, and chronic pain in the neck, shoulders, back, hands, and wrists only begin the list. Will the day dawn when we face restrictions to prevent such injuries? The best route for dealing with these issues is better research and smarter solutions that help protect our health while preserving our creative and artistic freedom.