It’s hard to think of great orchestral compositions as noise, but many violate a new European noise-at-work directive. It is prompting Europe’s orchestra to rethink “fortissimo” and take other measures to limit the known risks of excessive noise on musicians during performances.
The World Health Organization stresses that noise seriously harms human health, with traffic noise alone putting one in three Europeans at risk. The main health risks are pain and hearing fatigue and hearing impairment. Because it is stressful, noise has been shown to affect cardiovascular, hormonal and metabolic function.
Tests showed that the average noise level in the orchestra during the piece, “State of Siege,” by the composer Dror Feiler, was 97.4 decibels, just below the level of a pneumatic drill and a violation of the new noise-at-work limit. The law requires European employers to limit workers’ exposure to potentially damaging noise and it takes effect for the entertainment industry in April.
As reported by The New York Times, which covered the orchestra noise issue in April, the members of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra were suffering from ringing ears and throbbing heads after only one rehearsal of “State of Siege.”
Ergonomic solutions are readily available for the noise problems in many workplaces. Operators can wear ear protection. Machinery can be placed on rubber mountings and schedules and shifts arranged to limit exposure. A musician’s workplace presents complex issues. Alan Garner, an oboist and English horn player who is the chairman of the players’ committee at the Royal Opera House in London, told the newspaper that the most obvious measure, earplugs or noise-muffling earphones, is not a workable solution for musicians. “It’s like saying to a racing-car driver that they have to wear a blindfold,” he said.
Musicians are their own source of noise, and each one is exposed to a different level. Exposure depends on their instrument, the concert hall, where they sit in an orchestra and the fluctuations of the piece they are playing.
Orchestras are experimenting with solutions, such as installing noise-absorbing panels and anti-noise screens at strategic places, like in front of the brass section, to force the noise over the heads of other players. They are also trying to put more space between musicians, and rotating them in and out of the noisiest seats.
At the Royal Opera House, the management has devised a computer program that calculates individual weekly noise exposure by cross-referencing such factors as the member’s schedule and the pieces being played.
Musicians are spacing out rehearsals and playing more softly when they can, and conductors are also being asked to reconsider their repertoire. The question is whether “pianissimo” performances of favorites like Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” could draw music lovers to concert halls.
Sources: World Health Organization; New York Times