Musicians must wear earplugs when playing in the orchestra and at home

22 November 2017

Only earplugs prevent hearing damage in musicians caused by playing their instruments. Measures to reduce sound levels produced by professional orchestras – such as placing screens between sections or creating more space – offer little solace. A musician’s own instrument often contributes as much to the sound level reaching their ears as all other instruments in the orchestra combined. Rémy Wenmaekers made these discoveries during his research. Wenmaekers defended his PhD thesis on 22 November at Eindhoven University of Technology. His research was supported by NWO funding under the Creative Industry programme.

Acoustic test with a doll orchestra in Muziekgebouw Frits Philips in Eindhoven.Acoustic test with a doll orchestra in Muziekgebouw Frits Philips in Eindhoven. Photo: Rëmy Wenmaekers

The eardrums of trumpet and flute players are hardest hit. During loud passages, they experience average sound levels of 95 to 100 dB(A) from their own instrument. Violins and violas expose their players to sound levels well in excess of 90 dB(A). These levels are similar to those at a rock concert. They are also much higher than the 85 dB(A) limit laid down in European regulations on the compulsory wearing of ear protection at work. Musicians playing alone at home – professionals and non-professionals alike – are also exposed to excessive sound levels.

A musician himself, Wenmaekers understands that the inevitable use of earplugs is an unattractive prospect. ‘A musician with poor hearing risks losing his job. If you want to avoid that, earplugs are inevitable. At the same time, you want to perform as well as possible, and earplugs can be a hindrance. Musicians will therefore have to learn to play wearing earplugs from an early age. Once you’ve developed hearing problems, it’s already too late.’

Mathematical model rather than measurements

Acoustician and researcher Rémy Wenmaekers gained these results using a mathematical model that he developed to calculate the sound level reaching a musician’s ears. He chose a mathematical model rather than direct measurements using instruments played by musicians because they never reproduce exactly the same sound level. This makes it almost impossible to compare experiments using “real” musicians.

As a basis for his model, Wenmaekers used recordings of orchestral music per instrument made in an echoless chamber. The model takes account of parameters such as the sound direction of the instruments, the hearing direction of the recipients, sound reflection and blocking by other musicians. On comparing his results with measurements in a real orchestra, they proved very similar.

Wenmaekers used his model to calculate the effects of the most common sound-reducing measures, such as installing screens and using risers for the different sections of the orchestra. These effects proved to be minimal, because the main source of sound is the musician’s own instrument. For the same reason, the sound-amplifying effect of small orchestra spaces, such as covered orchestra pits, is also relatively minor (approximately 3 dB). According to Wenmaekers, it is nevertheless advisable to avoid small orchestra spaces, although noise levels still remain too high in other places as well. The only thing that really helps is to play more softly or use earplugs. Musicians have long been advised to play wearing earplugs, but this research has proven that there are no feasible alternatives.

However, two groups of instruments in the string section do not quite fit the pattern: the cellos and the double basses. These instruments produce a relatively soft sound and do not pose a risk when played at home. In the orchestra, sound levels at the ears of cello and double bass players are generally lower and the sound comes mainly from the other sections. Therefore for this group there may be alternative measures that are more effective than earplugs.

Further information

Rémy Wenmaekers completed his thesis “Stage acoustics and sound exposure in performance and rehearsal spaces for orchestras. Methods for physical measurements” at Eindhoven University of Technology, supported by funding under the NWO programme “Creative industry ER: Next Fashion, BEAU, Smart Design Solutions ”. The main applicant and supervisor was Dr Maarten Hornikx (the first associate professor to act as supervisor). The second supervisor was Prof. Armin Kohlrausch.