Orchestras Fight Noise Law

Should performing arts be limited by health or environmental concerns? The Association of British Orchestras thinks not, according to a recent BBC News item.

Members of the association are fighting to exempt orchestral music from a European Union directive that would institute strict limits on noise in the workplace. The EU hopes to impose an 83dB noise-level limitation throughout Europe—even if the workplace is a symphonic hall. A noise level that low would make it impossible to legally play most classical warhorse compositions, ABO director Libby MacNamara told BBC News Online: "It will stop us playing any loud music whatsoever, affecting almost all of the pieces played by orchestras." Following the letter of the law would have a "devastating impact" on the live music industry, she stated.

The ABO and similar organizations throughout Europe have petitioned the EU to make commissioners aware of the logical outcome of the directive. "We have to be aware that there are dangers and we must raise awareness," MacNamara said. "But we are working to try and remedy this in ways that are practical for the musicians." Among the solutions offered: the use of baffles between instruments and musicians; and the use of earplugs, which could make it impossible to hear themselves play, some musicians have complained.

The law sounds like an ill-conceived joke, but many orchestral musicians may not be aware that they have a dangerous occupation. Most at risk are those sitting directly in front of the brass section, where sound pressure levels during crescendos can be damaging, approaching 130dB, similar to the level of a jet engine. The BBC News item didn't note whether the sound levels under discussion are peak or average, which can have vastly different long-term effects on hearing. High average levels—especially with substantial high-frequency content—are the more damaging.

The musicians also may not be aware of advances in hearing protection made in recent years as a result of widespread recognition of hearing damage in career rock performers. Some high-quality earplugs, as are now commonly worn by rockers, can lower sound pressure levels by 10dB to 20dB equally across the audio spectrum without the characteristic top-end roll-off of cheap ones, thereby allowing musicians to hear details without the risk of auditory overload. Organizations like Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers (HEAR), which always have tables at Audio Engineering Society and National Association of Recording Merchandisers conventions, publish informative materials on music and hearing damage. HEAR's Website has links to makers of hearing protectors.