A study in the February online version of Applied Acoustics settles a long-standing debate as to whether playing in the pit causes hearing loss. While most studies have tested noise level in concert halls, little has been known about that in an orchestra pit. "The orchestra musicians are part of a union and they were concerned about the noise level in the pit when it came to renewing their contract," says the study's lead author, research associate Alberto Behar of U of T's Institute for Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME). "We were requested by the union to study if there is a risk to their hearing."
Behar and his team first determined through the personnel manager that the musicians play for 300 work hours per year, including performances and rehearsals. They then tested 67 volunteers who were requested to wear a noise dosimeter - a small cigarette-sized instrument used to measure sound - during 18 sessions of an activity that was either a rehearsal, a dress rehearsal or an actual performance, all of them in the pit. The duration of each activity was roughly three hours and included two operas with average-sized orchestras. The researchers found that the noise exposure of players of all of the instrument groups fell below acceptable 85 dBA (noise exposure level measured in decibels - dB, corrected to the frequency response of the human ear - A) for an eight-hour day recommended by institutions such as the U.S. National Institute of Safety and Health, the International Standard Organization (ISO) and also included in the Canadian Standards Association.
While the orchestra players may not be in danger of hearing loss in the pit, Behar cautions that the study did not take into account individual practice and measures should always be taken to protect hearing. "Implementing a hearing conservation program, that includes musician earplugs, is an effective way to reduce any risk of hearing loss," he says.