New research: All orchestra players should wear ear plugs

New research: All orchestra players should wear ear plugs


norman lebrecht

November 23, 2017

Tests conducted at a Dutch University showed that every section of the orchestra, including strings, are exposed to sound levels of 90 decibels in some sections to more than 100 decibels.

The tipping points for damage to hearing is calculated at 90db.

Risers and screens to do significantly diminish the damage.

Here‘s an abstract of the research:

Symphony orchestra musicians are exposed to noise levels that put them at risk of developing hearing damage. This study evaluates the potential effectivity of common control measures used in orchestras on open stages with a typical symphonic setup. A validated acoustic prediction model is used that calculates binaural sound exposure levels at the ears of all musicians in the orchestra.

The model calculates the equivalent sound levels for a performance of the first 2 min of the 4th movement of Mahler’s 1st symphony, which can be considered representative for loud orchestral music. Calculated results indicate that risers, available space, and screens at typical positions do not significantly influence sound exposure. 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. It can be concluded that significant reductions are only reached with extreme measures that are unrealistic. It seems impossible for the studied physical measures to be effective enough to replace hearing protection devices such as ear plugs.

Ten years from now, is that what we’ll all be wearing?



  • Bernhard G says:

    “The tipping points for damage to hearing is calculated at 90db.”

    It is not so. It’s much more complex.

    Actual hearing damage depends primarily on level, exposure time, frequency range, and temporal structure of signal (transient (short) vs stationary, tonal vs atonal/noisy)

    The worst kind of signals with highest risk for damage to hearing are high level short and high frequency rich signals, e.g. percussion (ff cymbals, gun shots, small high pitched drums, Mahler hammer etc.) or accentuated ff trumpets.

    There is a micro-muscular mechanism to adapt mechanical impedance in the middle ear to excessive sound levels to a degree. That adaption needs some milliseconds to react. Very loud – and unexpected – transients will therefor hit the inner ear without resistance and thus cause the most damage.

    90 dB average sound pressure level of a “normal” orchestra sound can be heard without risk of damage for a few hours.

  • Stephen says:

    After reading about Alfred Brendel’s hearing problems late in life I wonder if a pianist, especially when playing loud enough to rise above a symphony orchestra playing flat out or even when practicing at home for hours at a time, is putting his hearing at risk?

  • herrera says:

    We need to measure retired orchestra musicians’ hearing. That is the most scientific way of evaluating long term effect.

    As scientific understanding of the impact of forces on our bodies improves, we will detect more and more occupational hazards. Boxing, football and hockey are prime examples of what neuroscience is trying to measure fully today, damages not occurring until later in life (in one’s early 30s in the worst cases).

    We may think it is a paradox, how can something so pleasurable and enriching as music making still be a health hazard?

    It’s just reality. It needs to be studied, and musicians need to be protected, like any employee.

    • herrera says:

      Or just measure current orchestra musicians. If they perform worse than the general population on hearing tests, that’s not good… (and not just from a health standard, it’d be ironic if musicians had worse hearing than the audience!)

      • Drone1 says:

        Take a look at the reference list attached to the abstract linked in the above article – there has been a great deal of research on this topic over the last 30 years or so.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “………. how can something so pleasurable and enriching as music making still be a health hazard?” The radio orchestra of Baden Baden performed lodas of modern music in the sixties and seventies, and when a national survey was carried-out, the BB players suffered much more than average from divorce, head aches, anxiety syndromes, digestion problems, depression and agoraphobia. So, it depends upon context.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    This is indeed a problem. I know many musicians who have ringing in the ears. Ear plugs might help, but how in the world would orchestras ever develop a beautiful, balanced, tight sound? Playing with earplugs makes it impossible to hear others correctly.

    • Sam says:

      There are specialized ear plugs for musicians. My introduction to them came via the predecessor of the Musicians Clinics of Canada, now headed up by audiologist Dr. Marshall Chasin. They take hearing loss and hearing loss prevention very seriously.

      These plugs are not made out of foam, and the pair that I had custom-made for me (an orchestra clarinetist) have a hole in them, in which I can insert a variety of ‘plugs’ that themselves have a differently-sized holes. And I can completely block the hole as well.

      So I can stand right in front of a speaker at a rock concert, with ears fully blocked, and no damage. Or I can change the insert when I’m playing onstage so that the right sorts of sounds, including my own, are heard but the damaging sounds are filtered out.

      It did take some time for me to become accustomed to playing with them, but no longer do I fear Mahler, Wagner, or Bruckner.

      • Frank Ell says:

        Sam, I have a daughter and son-in-law who are members of a major orchestra. Would you be kind enough to let me know how I can get in touch with the person who makes the ear plugs.
        Thank you

        • Sam says:

          Frank – thanks for asking! They were custom made for me many moons ago by a clinic in Hamilton, ON that is now part of “Musicians Clinics of Canada.” Their website:

          There’s lots of info on the site, and if you’d like to contact them directly, here’s a link:

          From their FAQ page.
          Question: “Where can I find someone to make ER-25 or ER-15 earplugs?”
          Answer:”You should contact your state and provincial association for audiologists or hearing aid dispensers. They can put you in touch with an audiologist or a hearing aid dispenser that specializes in musicians. They can also be found in the phone book under “Audiologist” or “Hearing Aid Dispenser”. They are not covered under any medical program and usually are about $185 a pair in Canada, and about $150 in the US.”

          Happy hunting! It’s worth it.

        • Scotty says:

          Go to any audiologist. They are common. Mine, of the same type, cast to the ear and with interchangeable diaphragms, were fitted to me at least 20 years ago.

  • Peter says:

    The photo with the woman wearing headphones is silly because the specialised musician’s earplugs are nearly invisible, google “Elacin”.
    However it is true that musicians from rock to classical damage their hearing and the only way to escape this fate is by wearing the specialized musician’s earplugs. Many musicians are wearing them already since they do work as advertised, dampening the sound linearly over the whole frequency range and thus enabling a faithful sound image. Of course one hears more accurately and better without them. But only for so many years until one’s hearing is ruined at which point there is no cure. I am convinced that I hear better with the earplugs than some of my colleagues without thanks to me protecting my hearing and them not taking care of theirs.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    My crit would be the framing of the discussion as if it were primarily a professional symphony musician problem, whereas it’s a problem that starts as early as 5th grade beginner bands where students’ ears are placed just inches in front of trumpet and trombone bells.

  • Sue says:

    I’ve always regarded this as a sleeper issue. I sat right next to a few orchestras in the Musikverein and the noise level was huge. The first violins were right in front of me. There will already be some older musicians with tinnitus and other hearing issues; I’d mortgage my house on it. That’s how I’ve lost some of my hearing; a lifetime of listening to classical music turned up quite loudly (about the range of an orchestra).

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Having once or twice sat almost at the front in a concert hall, I have to say “never again”. The music is just too loud at the front (and must be appalling on the stage).

  • 5566hh says:

    Bit of a stupid picture, and in

    ‘Risers and screens to do significantly diminish the damage.’

    some words appear to be missing – ‘appear to do little to’ rather than ‘to do’ perhaps?

  • John Borstlap says:

    All this is good news for Morton Feldman’s work:

  • doremifa says:

    Imagine being an orchestra player (playing any instrument) in a Shostakovitch symphony n°7…I am sure your ears get damaged.
    Mind you I LOVE THAT WORK