A new study from the Netherlands has found that earplugs are essential for orchestral musicians, revealing that physical measures such as placing screens between sections or creating more space between players are largely ineffective. The research from the Eindhoven University of Technology, which has been published this month in the peer-reviewed Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, used the first two minutes of the Stürmisch bewegt finale of Mahler’s First Symphony as a representative example of loud orchestral playing.

The research, led by acoustics expert Remy Wenmaekers, was designed to evaluate the potential effectiveness of common control measures used in orchestras on open stages with a typical symphonic setup, using an acoustic prediction model that calculates the sound exposure levels of every musician in the orchestra. The model was based on recordings of orchestral music, instrument by instrument, made in an anechoic chamber and took into account the direction of the sound of the instruments, the listening orientation of the receivers, reflection of sound, and the blocking of sound on stage by musicians’ bodies.

Wenmaekers’ study calculated the effect of sound-reducing measures including screens and high plateaus for different instrumental sections, but according to his research, those effects appeared to be small due to the main source of sound originating from the player’s own instrument.

The study found that trumpet and flute players were exposed to the highest sound levels, with levels of 95 to 100 dB(A) recorded. To put this in context, Safe Work Australia’s model Workplace Health and Safety Regulations state that over an eight-hour shift, workers shouldn’t be exposed to levels greater than 85 decibels (about the same level of sound produced by a front-end loader). A video (above) published by Eindhoven University of Technology shows decibel levels – as calculated using Wenmaekers’ model – regularly exceeding 100 decibels at the ears of musicians and at times approaching 110 decibels, the same level as a chainsaw.

The fact that these levels are produced by the players’ own instruments alone means the hazards are present regardless of screens or positioning, rendering earplugs the most effective option for hearing protection. It also means musicians – whether professional or amateur – may also be producing excessive sound levels at home or in private practice sessions. The exception is for cello and bass players, whose instruments are relatively soft and who, therefore, are affected more by other musicians than by their own playing.

“Calculated results indicate that risers, available space, and screens at typical positions do not significantly influence sound exposure,” the researchers wrote. “A hypothetical scenario with surround screens shows that, even when shielding all direct sound from others, sound exposure is reduced moderately with the largest effect on players in loud sections. In contrast, a dramatic change in room acoustic conditions only leads to considerable reductions for soft players.”

The dangers of sound exposure have long been on the radars of Australia’s state symphony orchestras. “The Sydney Symphony Orchestra takes noise monitoring and hearing protection for its musicians very seriously,” a spokesperson from the SSO told Limelight. “The SSO aims to manage and minimise the risk of noise-induced hearing loss in the workplace by identifying noise hazards, monitoring noise levels at every rehearsal and performance, and providing mechanisms to control risks around noise. The SSO arranges annual hearing screenings and custom made earplugs for its musicians. Every musician of the Orchestra is required to undertake an annual hearing test. Other measures to mitigate sound exposure include the use of sound screens and re-positioning of seating.”

In fact, the research from Eindhoven University of Technology follows the findings of the Sound Practice project, a first-of-its-kind study funded by the Australian Research Council and the Australia Council for the Arts, which was led by the University of Sydney’s Dr Bronwen Ackermann and set up in response to recommendations of a 2005 review of orchestras carried out by James Strong. The study involved the six Australian state symphony orchestras, Orchestra Victoria and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (now the Opera Australia Orchestra) and investigated all aspects of musicians’ health and safety – including psychological health and fitness –  resulting in a comprehensive handbook for orchestral musicians.

“There are significant issues with large acoustic screens when used for exposure management in an orchestra, including obstruction of sight lines and the exacerbation of exposure to players ‘upstream’ of the screens,” the report states. “Investigators identified a possible solution to this issue in a screen being used in front of high level instruments (trumpets) in an orchestra pit. The screens were designed to reduce exposure to those seated in front of the trumpets while having negligible impact on the exposure of the trumpet players themselves.”

The Sound Practice handbook – which (along with the full report) is available on the Australia Council’s website – acknowledges the limitations of screens and reminds musicians: “Remember (unless you play cello, bass or harp) your own instrument is often the source of your highest sound exposure over the course of a rehearsal or a concert.”

The report by the Sound Practice project was welcomed by the orchestras when it was released earlier this year. “The TSO was one of several Australian orchestras that participated in the RAC Sound Practice Project funded by the Australian Research Council from 2009 to 2015. The findings were released in March 2107,” a spokesperson from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra told Limelight. “We continue to endeavour to follow the recommendations in this report, not only for hearing safety but also for all the recommendations the report delivered.”

“The TSO requires each new musician to have a hearing test upon commencement of employment and a yearly check thereafter. We also cover the costs of individually fitted earplugs. We are trying to encourage our musicians that hearing health is a combination of a number of preventative measures, not just one. The TSO will continue to work proactively with our musicians in looking after their health and well-being.”