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A hearing-loss lawsuit raises questions about orchestras’ duty to protect musicians

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Are we to understand that OSHA hasn't issued workplace noise regulations for orchestras?
They don't do spot inspections to make sure employers provide musicians earplugs?


As a noise control engineer, I can tell you that hearing protection is usually the last resort for combating exposure to noise. Musicians do have the option to be fitted for "musician" type of hearing protection that claim to have a flat attenuation. There are many steps that can be taken to lessen the exposure, from using acoustical materials to treat surfaces to placement of musicians. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health produced a document to help musicians and their employers, I highly recommend it.


Orchestra sound is horrible. I don't listen to symphony music as they are no good sound. I prefer "smooth" jazz that I can hear nice musical instruments individually. Symphony uses too many instrument. It's noisy and boring.


I was a flight surgeon, many wars ago and noise damage to hearing was a big deal. I know that I lost high tone hearing during my tour.
Noise can be filtered out to the extent of nearly 15 Db by protection, but the vibrations are also transmitted to the skull and so stimulate the middle ear, 135 Db becomes 120 Db and still damaging to hearing in the long term
In any case, the protection against noise included ear plugs (which were not much used,) and the radio "muffs" or headsets that were part of the radio transmission used in the aircraft. One sees them used by radio broadcasters with the mic on the front. These actually made communication among crew members possible and protected the hearing because the muffs dulled the noise ( from the engines and transmissions of helicopters-the main culprits) so allowing the words of the other crew to be heard relatively better.
A possible solution to the musicians' problem might be these headsets with a mic set up so that they can hear their own instrument but filter out the ambient noise. Worth investigating.


I wonder if decibel is a good measure for the damages to one's hearing due to Wagner. A 120 decibel white noise has its power spread on the whole hearing spectrum, at least some of the acoustic power would fall on less sensitive frequencies, while 120 decibel of a middle-A, especially from a clarinet, would be concentrated on the most sensitive portion of audible range, therefore conceivably could cause more damage to one's hearing.
Entirely speculation on my part, of course.

ashbird in reply to Houshu

I did a quick search on the site of "Dangerous Decibels Project" -, and found the following info -

A typical conversation occurs at 60 dB – not loud enough to cause damage.
A bulldozer that is idling (note that this is idling, not actively bulldozing) is loud enough at 85 dB that it can cause permanent damage after only 1 work day (8 hours).
When listening to a personal music system with stock earphones at a maximum volume, the sound generated can reach a level of over 100 dBA, loud enough to begin causing permanent damage after just 15 minutes per day!
A clap of thunder from a nearby storm (120 dB) or a gunshot (140-190 dB, depending on weapon), can both cause immediate damage. Repeatedly assaulting the ears, the damage accumulates, and will lead to hearing loss.
The project points out noise is probably the most common occupational hazard facing people today. It is estimated that as many as 30 million Americans are exposed to potentially harmful sounds at work. Even outside of work, many people participate in recreational activities that can produce harmful noise (loud concerts, loud movie theaters, use of power tools). Sixty million Americans own firearms, of those who do not use hearing protection devices are at risk of hearing loss with diligent "workouts".
Sitting in the middle of an orchestra (close range to noise source) as an instrumentalist does present a occupational challenge for the ears, day in day out doing the same thing in rehearsals and performance.
A group of classical composer's work such as Wagner and Shostakovich may require special "preparation" on the instrumentalist's part. I am also speculating, don't know more than you do.

Houshu in reply to ashbird

Thanks for the info.
Decibel only measures the energy intensity, but physiological and psychological damages due to intense sound wave must also depend on the frequency. There are anecdotal evidences: a certain high pitch sound can cause the invading Martians' heads to explode (according to a cartoon documentary), and rumors that lower frequency percussion sound can disrupt cardiac rhythm (or turn people gay(?))...seriously though, there was a recent mysterious 'auditory attack' against US embassy personnel in Havana, Cuba.
Sorry, I'm just rumbling... why TE only open a precious few topics for discussion? and they have the nerve to ask me to renew the subscription!

ashbird in reply to Houshu

You are welcome. Yes! I recall the news on "auditory attack" at US embassy in Cuba.
I personally can see (my surmise) how noise can interfere with a lot of mental processes that ordinarily are on auto-pilot. I myself cannot turn on what I call "serious thinking" when there are all sorts of sound intrusions from the environment. And loud noises, such as those in movie theaters nowadays simply give me an instant headache (I have no idea why the sound level has to be turned on so high (are most of the people in the theatre half-deaf?), so I quit going (why buy torture with my hard-earned money?)
I rumble more than you if you are rumbling. TE must have its reason for not opening all topics for readers' input/discussion. Perhaps they are calling "time out"? Just a guess. Some commenters' ad hominem attacks on TE's writers and other fellow commenters are truly vicious. One attacked even the Editor-in-Chief's name, seeing all 3 names - first, middle and surname as unacceptable. Now that's really bizarre. You don't even have the right to keep the surname you are born with?? Of you do, that will make someone hate you? I don't agree with everything TE says. But that is not the point of reading something from the vantage point of an educated mind, is it? Diversity in views and opinions are what help hone the mind and sharpen the tool of communication, as long as all the inputs (what TE prints and what commenters say) are offered IN GOOD FAITH. I can't say 100% of TE commenters are in good faith. Some of them are truly truly weird. And then there are the trolls whose sole purpose in replying to anyone is to launch and ad hominem attack and pick a fight. I find that low. Re subscription, I am not pitching a sale for TE, but I think they have reduced the rate for new subscribers, at least I read somewhere that offer, pretty substantial reduction!


The judgment is so enormously unfair. The guy should have sued Wagner.
In any case, I would, if I were the orchestra, argue Contributory Negligence and aportion the damages. The orchestra provided earplugs. Why should he think he was so "above" the rest of the orchestra not to wear it?
Nor is hearing loss a sudden catastrophic event. It is gradual and progressive. Deterioration of the auditory nerve also comes with normal aging, with different degree for different people. It is a part of a professional musician's job to take care of his own ears and hearing as a requirement of being a professional musician, let alone for him, in the course of his employment . He was at least 50% liable.
Everybody sues everybody. Whom does "God" sue? He's been used as even an excuse to kill people and prohibit the use of condoms to prevent transmission of not only "venereal diseases", but other diseases as long as they are transmittable by bodily fluids. Jesus Christ!

ashbird in reply to ashbird

Source for remark on Whom does "God" sue?" -
They, the holy ones, say it is the Holy Bible that says: Don't use condoms. They are sinful. You go to Hell if you use them, for any purpose. [Revelation Verse 7452940: *&%$: "?:!+^#!! = 1]
Heaven forbid, in those days, sheep intestines, not latex, were used to make condoms. Where are the addresses for all those souls now who even then knew enough to look out for Public Health?

guest-aanieeii in reply to ashbird

Actually ashbird, the musician suffered from acoustic shock, a sudden exposure to excessive noise levels, and the damage can be instantaneous as is the case here. Acoustic shock is not gradual hearing loss as you described and has nothing to do with aging!