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Shock data: 60 percent of orchestral musicians are losing their hearing

A comprehensive study of musicians in New Zealand finds that 60.7 percent of orchestral musicians aged between 27 and 66 suffered significant hearing loss.

The case for earplugs is strengthening. Read a summary of the report here.

photo (c) Lebrecht Music & Arts

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  1. It's That Steve Again (ITSA) says:

    Interesting. Somewhat unsurprising. Small sample size though ( I’d want to see more of his methodology, including regarding sample selection etc, before conceding “comprehensiveness”. I would also want to see his literature review before conceding comprehensiveness in that sphere. I’ve seen my share of literature reviews (which are always worthwhile if for no reason than they cover ground for others), and not always been impressed by them, or what I found that they left out.

  2. ….. because most conductors don’t know how to play with dynamics and to stay in good standing usually let the orchestra players play how they want…..which would mean fff……hence their own fault – no pity, most players just want to play get done and go home.

  3. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Studies in this area go back over at least 20 years. Here is another example:

    Ear plugs and sound shields are a required part of the orchestral scene today. Even conservatories in the USA provide earplugs for their students. I personally provided earplugs to a student orchestra rehearsing Le Sacre in a small space. There were 115 players and we bought 115 sets. There were none left. We had to replenish the supply for the second rehearsal.

    Why is this happening? Concert Halls that are too large, recordings (everyone wants to feel the sound they hear on their headphones) and in one case, a conductor was allegedly hard-of-hearing and demanded incredibly loud playing especially on the part of the brass (no names please, we’re talking about a legend).

  4. The Maltese Falcon says:

    I guess that should also include presenters on radio…especially thems with the cans in their ears all through a broadcast.

  5. Timon Wapenaar says:

    Agreed, ITSA. Would definitely want more comprehensive research done. That having been said, my gut feeling is that sometimes (ie. in the “blast area” directly in front of the brass/perc) orchestras can be very loud, and that this is part of a globalised, cross-genre trend in music. We may point fingers at Berlioz, but it is the increasingly cost-effective manufacture of amplification systems which has really lead us into this dynamic “race to the bottom”. This, coupled with the pervasiveness of music generally in post-industrial societies, puts the audience generally, and the musician in particular, at ever greater risk of progressive hearing damage. Alas, what we will never have is an study which can measure the differences, if any, in progressive hearing damage between both the musicians and the audience of today, and those of, say, Mahler’s day.

    • Yes, there are certainly ‘blast areas’ on stage and in the pit near the brass and percussion, as there have been for generations. What is changing is the increasing prevalence of pops concerts catering to the boomer and younger generations, where an orchestra shares the stage with a rock band, and where vocals, drums, electric bass and guitar are all fed back on stage through monitor speakers at levels often requiring ear protection for an entire evening. These types of concerts tend to sell well, and have become something of an addiction for many cash-strapped orchestras. If one were looking for new criteria with which to compare orchestras, ‘percentage of concerts where the orchestra shares the stage with an amplified drum set’ might be one to consider.

  6. Thomas Notini says:

    I think this has been known for quite a long time already, by pure experience, even though maybe no real scientific studies have been undertaken on the issue. I guess it is at worst in orchestra pits at the opera houses and other music theatres, where scantiness of space often cause other ergonomical problems as well. On some orchestra stages a kind of protecting shields are being used at some locations, but probably of limited avail.

  7. What do they expect when they keep making those poor orchestras accompany rock groups?

  8. It's That Steve Again (ITSA) says:

    Indeed, per Robert Fitzpatrick and Thomas Notini, hearing loss in classical musicians has been known for some time, with studies dating back 20 years, per this 1992 article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) (, which is one of the earliest I’ve found so far (I’ll keep looking though, just not intensely in the absence of necessity). Beyond such studies, there would be anecdotal evidence.

    Per Timon Wapenaar, noise induced hearing loss among musicians is probably more prevalent in post-industrial societies, especially with the increasing use of amplification systems, than it was in pre-industrial societies. Per Timon, we can’t directly measure the differences of pre-industrial and post-industrial societies. We might be able to make some inferences from indirect, historical studies: but that’s all they’d be.

    I like Timon’s reference to a dynamic “race to the bottom”. This is in effect a positive feedback system at the societal level. Positive feedback is pervasive in life, but the neat irony in this case is that one of the most commonly known examples of positive feedback – used to explain the phenomenon in a fashion that people can relate to – is found in sound amplification systems. As James Gorman once wrote (in his book ‘The Man With No Endorphins’), “there may not be justice in the world, but at least there’s irony”.

    It would be interesting to see if there are any data sets sitting somewhere containing audiometric analysis of hearing in relevant populations post-industrial but pre-amplification pervasiveness. There’s always a chance of that sort of stuff, laying around in say, armed services medical archives. Such data would facilitate comparison with data gleaned post-amplification pervasiveness. Now THAT would be interesting.

  9. It's That Steve Again (ITSA) says:

    I meant to say thanks to Robert Fitzpatrick for posting the link to the ‘Now Hear This…’ article. A good, succinct article with some references. One of the references (Ostri 1989), is this:

  10. It's That Steve Again (ITSA) says:

    I promise not to bombard you with material, but this 2011 article – ‘Hearing loss among classical-orchestra musicians’ – is interesting:;year=2011;volume=13;issue=50;spage=45;epage=50;aulast=Toppila

  11. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    The journal “Medical Problems of Performing Artists” has been around for over 25 years. Their fully documented articles are based on serious research at major hospitals in the USA and around the world. Pioneers in this effort have been Dr. Alice Brandfonbrener (Northwestern University Hospital in Chicago), and Dr, Robert Sataloff (an ENT specialist now at Drexel University University and private practice in Philadelphia) among many others.

    Please notice the article in the March 2012 edition of MPPA Journal on page 31(only an abstract is availble because this is a paying site for professional subscribers).

    Most music schools in the USA have a subscription for their faculty and students. This movement grew out of the Sports medicine departments in University medical Schools with big athletic programs. Thanks to the jocks (and their docs).

  12. We in the Twin Cities were saddened just recently at the retirement announcement of a beloved MO player due to hearing issues. This is something that must be dealt with.

    • It's That Steve Again (ITSA) says:

      @Pamela Brown. A difficult issue it appears. How long had this person been playing for?

      There is some research on hearing protection among musicians, per this article:

      ‘Factors affecting the use of hearing protectors among classical music players’;year=2005;volume=7;issue=26;spage=21;epage=29;aulast=Laitinen

      Mind you, although I only perused it briefly, I didn’t see mention of what I thought were some key social dynamic issues touched on by the other article at the link provided by Marc Stotijn.

      In that study, 19% of the respondents “indicated they would be ashamed of having hearing disorders”. Some thought they’d not be good musicians; some thought their colleagues would doubt their ability; some were afraid of losing their jobs. These are not insignificant concerns: people, and organisations, want to know you if they think you’re an asset. But if they think you’re a liability, you’re on your own.

      But if prevention is the answer, first and foremost must be the practicality of the solution, and demonstration of that solution by a high-performance orchestra. Easier said than done. But that’s no reason not to try.

  13. For many years I was an amateur bassoonist in a semi-pro orchestra, and sat in front of the brass. Fortunately it was a small group, so we couldn’t play Berlioz, Mahler, etc. Mozart Haydny, et al were OK, but for the occasional bigger pieces I always plugged my ears. I hated playing that way, but it was better than going deaf. I can well understand what happens in large orchestras…

  14. Timon Wapenaar says:

    @ITSA Perhaps ethnographic is the way to go. I don’t know if there has been any cross-cultural survey done, but at least there are stone-age peoples living in relatively noiseless environments which we can still study. What I can say is that a Bushman can smell water before he can see it.

    As for positive feedback, this is about the best term I have read for describing the process. What really worries me are all those high school bands/orchestras and youth ensembles which are trying to out-Gladiator Hans Zimmer! Both parents and kids are easily seduced by the power of raw volume, and blaring trumpets and trombones accompanied by heavy metal timpani are always guaranteed a (stunned) round of applause. What most people (conductors of said youth ensembles included) don’t realise is that Zimmer uses a unique blend of sampled, synthesised and pukkah orchestral sounds, and that everything is mixed am mastered to perfection post production. The result is a sound ideal, specifically in terms of the perceived density of a given chord, which is impossible to replicate working from the score of the *official* Hal Leonard arrangements. But that doesn’t stop us from trying! Mark the trombones and horns up to FFF, glare fiercely at the percussion, and hope the violins don’t realise that no one can actually hear them!

  15. @ITSA: For your collection, this research is from the Netherlands => Noise induced hearing loss and other hearing complaints among musicians of symphony orchestras.
    The results were less alarming as expected among the musicians. An amazing percentage of the tested group suffered from Tinnitus.

  16. It's That Steve Again (ITSA) says:

    @Marc Stotijn: Thanks for the link. As you say, a significant percentage with tinnitus. Even more (79%) reporting hyperacusis (increased sensitivity to loud sounds). Other articles also show these as more common in musicians than the general population. A good piece of research, although I know of a statistician/behavioural scientist who would pick up on a linguistic sleight-of-hand regarding their statistical analysis. But that does not negate the overall quality of the work or its value. I notice they acknowledge and address the issue of selection bias, which is particularly good.

    I myself, while not a musician, have tinnitus, but I seem to have otherwise good hearing. Funnily enough, it took me a while to realise I had it, because for a time I resided in an area where the sound of cicadas was ever present, and my tinnitus happens to be at that frequency. Then one evening, while laying in bed, I realised that there was a lull in the cicada sound, but not in the noise I was hearing, and the penny dropped. So I can’t even pinpoint when it developed. I know a period when I definitely didn’t have it: prior to 1986, when I went up a hill on which the sound of cicadas was deafening. The noise didn’t continue when I left. And I don’t recall it prior to around 1995, when I can pinpoint a relocation on my part to an area where cicadas were prevalent. And I recall going to some ‘blockbuster’ movies where I thought the sound was uncomfortably loud (I gave that crap away pretty quickly, but I did wonder about hearing damage, and I did resort to taking earplugs to cinemas). But I digress: I just thought I’d use the moment to formalise a couple of thoughts and move on…

    Thanks too Robert Fitzpatrick for your links. I’ve checked the website, and see that their archives go back to 1986, and that some articles are free. I personally have no need or ability to pay for other articles at this time, but awareness is the main issue. Good to see the existence of the publication, and good that you brought awareness of it to this forum. It’s a safe bet that others will check the publication out.

    @Timon Wapenaar. Good point on ethnographic comparisons. It’ll be interesting to see whether we can find anything on this.

    • On this site: you can find a preventive tool for hearing damage in orchestra-musicians, developed for the Dutch orchestras.
      It’s a noise-estimation list of regular orchestral repertoire (of course not complete)
      Translation of the levels: Laag=Low, Middel= Middle, Hoog=High, Zeer Hoog= Very High.
      I have no data on the amount of users of this list, it’s hidden on an old Health and Safety site of the Performing Arts Employers Association.
      The main goal of the repertoire-list was to prevent programming of too many loud pieces in one concert.

  17. I would think the matter is quite obvious. I know people who have suffered deafness from industrial noise pollution so it would seem a logical step to apply this to an orchestra where people are sitting in front of loud instruments for long periods of time. Of course the application to rock music with a loud amplification is also obvious.

    • It's That Steve Again (ITSA) says:

      Agreed. It seems self-evident to external observers. The problem, per a couple of the article links posted, is motivating musicians to wear them, and addressing factors preventing the wearing of hearing protection. A high performance orchestra needs to lead the way: success in that department will automatically negate some factors of resistance.

      • another orchestra musician says:

        Agreed and agreed, the matter is quite obvious, and is self-evident to external observers. Be assured also that the use of earplugs has been common practice within high-performance orchestras for several decades now, and is prescribed by law in some countries and in certain circumstances. Not all musicians that, objectively seen, should be using earplugs, actually do; but very few players in modern-day professional orchestras are unaware of the imperative for using them.

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