How Loud Is Too Loud? by Betty Power

from the BKA Newsletter, Summer 2002

Unless we are fortunate enough to live and work in an environment of peaceful, natural beauty, it is likely that most of us would agree that today’s world is a much noisier place than ever before. Our hearing is constantly exposed to a chronic din at the least, and noisy workplaces the worst – some by choice, others by chance: DIY, wearing personal headphones, smoking (!), children’s toys, the sounds from the street and underground…

Organisations have been established to raise public awareness of the dangers of noise and noise pollution, to help young and old understand the mechanics of the ear, and what they can do to prevent premature hearing loss. In May 2005, a European-wide Awareness Campaign was launched to raise awareness of one of Europe’s most persistent workplace health problems – noise at work.

As music educators, what are we doing to safeguard our students’ hearing in the classrooms, in the practice rooms, in the concert halls? What are you doing to protect your own hearing in your working environment? We have a responsibility to learn about the long-term effect of loud music on children’s hearing, and what we can do to ensure that the musicians of tomorrow will still be able to function in the future. Schools, youth orchestras, conservatories all have a vital role to play in providing information on hearing damage and protection, which could start as early as age seven, e.g. simply by eliminating fear of hearing tests.

Did You Know That……?

  • Students often play in environments with worse acoustics than professionals, but that the inner ear of the child is more sensitive to noise and may be susceptible to hearing loss for noise exposures that are safe for adults.
  • Noise levels when teaching are theoretically much lower than when in performance but still significant. (A peripatetic brass teacher was successful in a legal case against his local authority for hearing damage which was apparently caused by working in small practice rooms!)
  • Modern instruments are getting louder.
  • Research in audiology (hearing science) has documented a higher incidence of permanent learning loss in classical musicians than rock/pop musicians – incidence increase of 30% in rock/pop musicians and 52% in classical musicians!
  • Over 80% of musicians when tested following a performance had a temporary music induced hearing loss – damage will be permanent if exposed to loud noise too long or too often. Effects of too much noise may last for a few hours or even a few days.

How Loud Is Too Loud?

Protecting your hearing starts with understanding how noise works. The classic “formula” for assessing the risk of hearing loss is the intensity of the noise, measured in decibels (the danger starts at 85 decibels, roughly the sound of a lawn mower), multiplied by duration, the time of exposure. In other words, the louder the noise, the less time you should be exposed to it. Prolonged exposure to any noise above 85 decibels can cause gradual hearing loss.

Some common noise levels:

Whispering: below 35 dB

Talking with friends: 50-60 dB

Hair dryer low speed / 82 dBA

Flute playing lively folk tunes / 88 dBA

Underground train at 200 ft / 94 dBA

Output of bagpipes / 109 dBA

Music in a disco: 110-120 dB (amplified at 8 feet)

Symphonic music peak, some health clubs & aerobic studios: 120 dBA

Noise levels surpassing 140 dB will result in immediate and irreversible damage.

An EU directive has determined the legal limit for sound exposure is 85dB.

What’s That You Say? Signs of Hearing Loss

  • Reduced understanding of speech and accessibility to sounds
  • Tinnitus (i.e. ringing, or other perceptions of sound in the ear) that is associated with hearing loss and pitch perception problems, i.e. “A” heard as a “B”

Children might describe the following experiences:

  • Feels like you’re hearing through cotton wool
  • Difficulty understanding what people are saying
  • Ears feel like they want to “pop”
  • Hear ringing, or high whistling sound in ear.

What Is Being Done to reduce the risk of hearing loss due to exposure to loud music?

The professionals…

Last year the Musicians Benevolent Fund in cooperation with the Association of British Orchestras began a series of training seminars for orchestral players and management dealing with the issue of noise damage in orchestras. Initiated in response to the research project ‘A Sound Ear’ which was commissioned by the Association of British Orchestras in 2001. This thought-provoking report tackled the issues of potential hearing damage to orchestral musicians and the training seminars go some way to offering solutions. Many orchestras world-wide are affected by laws regarding noise levels and other countries look to the ABO for guidance on the subject. (The complete report, “A Sound Ear”, is available through the Association of British Orchestras (£10) and online ABO website “Symposia”)

(In) May 2005, the San Francisco Opera began providing each of its regular musicians a pair of custom-fitted “musicians’ earplugs”, originally created by Etymotic Research for members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This new benefit program is in conjunction with H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers, a San Francisco-based non-profit hearing preservation organisation). Hear Tomorrow seeks to educate and promote awareness of the danger to our hearing from continued exposure to loud sounds.

What can we do for children?

  1. Reduce noise levels at source: raise the brass, reduce the amount of ‘noisy’ repertoire, choose lighter repertoire for smaller venues, hold sectional rehearsals whenever possible, establish the (correct) use of ear plugs and/or screens, never double rank the brass when it’s noisy repertoire, re-design pit orchestras
  2. In extreme situations, reduce noise levels at individual level by using hearing protection devices, e.g. ear-plugs or in-the-ear sound monitors
  3. Teach children that their ears are their most important musical instrument.
  4. Ensure that students receive age-appropriate hearing-health information at all stages of their development. Refer them to up-to-date websites, leading news articles to help them understand that investing in hearing health is just as important as investing in healthy eating and daily exercise! And that NOW is the most important time.
  5. Enlist the advice of an accoustical consultant at your school or music organisation, to approximate the noise risks. (NOTE: Danish primary schools have installed noise monitors in their classrooms).

NOTE: The BKA provides links for information only and does not endorse products or companies. All links open in a new browser window.

1) For Parents, Teachers, Adults: Online factsheet available from RNID website: to find out about:

  • how we hear
  • different kinds of hearing loss
  • hearing loss caused by noise
  • tinnitus caused by noise
  • how can I prevent noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus?
  • what are the Noise at Work Regulations?
  • can I get compensation for noise exposure?
  • equipment to protect your hearing
  • reusable earplugs
  • where can I buy ear protectors?

2) For KS1-2

“Keeping Ears Safe From Noise”: p=335&np=152&id=1442

3) For Teens a non-profit hearing information source for musicians and music-lovers.

4) For Music Professionals

British Performing Arts Medicine Trust (BPAMT)
196 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8JF
Telephone: 020 7240 4500 (London) or 0845 602 0235 (outside London).
Fax: 020 7240 3335

The Musicians’ Union
60-62 Clapham Road, London SW9 0JJ
Telephone: 0207 582 5566
Fax: 0207 582 9805

New Developments
(As printed in Hearing Health, volume 19:2, Summer 2003)

Sennheiser is taking a step toward taming fatigue-inducing ambient noise for commuters, travelers and pedestrians in urban or noisy settings. PXC 250 “Streetwear” mini-headphones for portable music players reduce noise above 1,200 Hz by 15 to 25 decibels. The foldable set tucks away into its own bag and comes equipped with Noise Guard™ compensation that can be switched on to lessen environmental noise on aircraft, trains and other motorized vehicles. It has the ability to cut sounds below 1,000 Hz, such as engine noise, by 15 decibels.

SoundEar® from SoundShip, a Danish company, is a noise indicator that uses a unique light display to warn of exceeding pre-set decibel limits. Awarded the Danish Design prize in 2000, the wall-mounted model is universally used in Swedish school cafeterias and in many European classrooms and workplaces. Recently introduced in the U.S., it seems an eminently sensible approach to teaching about the dangers of exposure to loud noise as well as safeguarding against them.

PocketEar®, a nifty little personal noise monitor, lights up when sounds exceed a decibel setting selected from three choices on the meter. It comes with a neckstrap, keeping it handy for checking for warnings, and also acts as a carrying case for earplugs! Great for concerts or workplaces that have variable noise levels.