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August 13, 2010

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Noise and hearing – And the band played on

With about 22,000 staff plus 12,000 freelancers on location all around the world, the BBC needs robust safety management procedures to deal with the myriad risks and hazards its employees face. A major challenge is managing the performance of live classical music safely, so Ruth Hansford explains the work underway at the corporation to ensure everybody knows the score.

The BBC is Britain’s second-largest employer of musicians,1 with some 450 instrumentalists and singers working in the six Performing Groups (five orchestras and the BBC Singers), plus a huge pool of freelance musicians who are engaged on single projects (this includes the jazz and crossover artists for shows like Strictly Come Dancing). While the safety risks of playing classical music are not on the same scale as, say, flying in a helicopter filming our stormy coastline, there is nevertheless a need to ensure musicians remain safe and healthy and ready to do something many would see as much more scary: play a trumpet solo live, on air!

Longer-term health risks are a key issue, with musicians likened to élite athletes but without access to the same specialist sports-science and medical practitioners. By the time a musician is at the height of his or her artistic powers, years of performing at the top level have begun to take their toll – for example, musculoskeletal problems from playing an asymmetric instrument, or the psychological strains associated with anti-social hours, with no escape from colleagues and little autonomy.

As the French composer, critic, and jobbing orchestral musician Hector Berlioz famously said: “La musique est divine mais la profession est merde”2 – a sentiment that resonates with today’s musicians.

Although musculoskeletal problems top the list of reported health concerns, and everyone agrees about slips and trips, temperature and humidity control, it is the whole issue of ‘noise’ that creates the most varied – sometimes extreme – responses among musicians, managers and audiences.

Some think the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 are ‘’elf and safety gone mad’, while others report years of discomfort from noise-related hearing problems, and as many again believe they have better-than-average hearing after years in the profession. Whatever the state of their hearing, we get a range of responses – from ‘It’s just part of the job’ to ‘Management has to do more to protect our hearing’ to ‘If only I’d known when I started out I’d have been a lot more sensible’. And, of course: ‘I can’t do my job wearing earplugs.’

Musicians are very sociable people and, on any one day, up to 25 per cent of the workforce in the Performing Groups will be freelance – with a huge network of musician friends, colleagues and employers with whom to share stories. And since everything the BBC does is for broadcast, we operate in the aural equivalent of a goldfish bowl. So we have to get it right.

Hitting the right note

In response to the application of the CNAW Regulations to the music and entertainment sectors, which came into force in April 2008, the BBC Performing Groups agreed to fund a year-long Noise Project to build on existing work done over the years at the Corporation. It looked in depth at the sound levels to which classical musicians are routinely exposed across a range of repertoire – from Renaissance choral polyphony, through the 19th and early 20th-century Romantic symphonic repertoire, to pieces that were finished yesterday – and in as many of the venues performed in as possible – from the bathtub-like Ayr Town Hall to the vast Royal Albert Hall, and the dead acoustics of London’s Mermaid Theatre to the resonant space of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The resulting data set is probably the biggest of its kind; more than a thousand noise-dose records were collected from some 250 musicians, including conductors. The secondary research set out to answer the questions musicians always ask – such as: ‘If I like the music will it harm me less?’ – based on the peer-reviewed literature. It was also an opportunity, through links with the Association of British Orchestras, together with the convenient fact that venues and freelancers are shared around the sector, to look beyond the BBC and see how others, including colleagues in Europe, are addressing the issue.

There’s no getting away from the fact that some classical music is LOUD. But even if you’re playing the piccolo in an early classical piece, such as a Haydn symphony, you’ll be getting a dose of 93dB(A) in 24 minutes and, assuming you don’t practise or warm up, giving yourself a daily dose of 80dB(A). That’s only (!) 3dB less than if you’re playing the horn in the Rite of Spring. So, music lovers will be relieved to hear the case for banning the Rite of Spring is not much more compelling than the case for banning Haydn.

Of course, it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that the ones who are most affected by loud noise are not those making it (hence receiving higher doses – and that includes singers), but those who are playing quieter instruments and sitting downwind from the noisy ones. Nevertheless, although musicians do complain of tinnitus and other hearing problems, the link between exposure to risk and evidence of harm is not clear-cut. In fact, we are always being told of the health benefits of music: the Mozart effect makes children cleverer; piped classical music at tube stations makes us less stressed for our daily commute; etc.

For every article in a peer-reviewed journal claiming musicians’ hearing is better than average, you’ll see one claiming it’s worse. Possible explanations for the better-than-average performance in hearing tests include: the intermittent nature of classical music (which gives the ears a chance to rest); liking the music (which makes the blood-flow to the cochlea more efficient); and anticipating the loud sounds (to engage the aural reflex and protect the ear).

Playing in harmony

But none of this means we’re absolved from doing all we can to protect musicians’ hearing. So far in the BBC and across the sector we’ve seen experiments with acoustic screens, spacing out the orchestra both vertically and horizontally, and organising the artistic programme and the rehearsal and performance schedule with noise management in mind. Some of these solutions work well and have the potential to become usual practice, while others don’t work well at all and may only serve to discredit those that do. The HSE recognises this, and the fact that if there were an easy answer to the ‘noise problem’ it would have been universally adopted by now.

The solution seems to be to do a combination of things in the ‘right way’, making sure that decreasing exposure for one musician doesn’t increase it for another, and, above all, providing training and information so that all involved understand the benefits of, and buy into, doing those things.

Looking at the published guidance with the benefit of so much data has meant that we are closer to seeing what is reasonably practicable in protecting musicians’ hearing, in such a way that we also keep the show on the road and retain the rich quality of our musical life.

A common-sense approach has to be pursued in partnership – with musicians and managers, broadcasters and venues working together, and with regulators working alongside those who are making music, as well as those who are training the next generation of musicians and managers (including composers and conductors). It’s securing this partnership that is the next big challenge and one to which the BBC and HSE are fully committed. 


1    After the Ministry of Defence, which employs some 1330 musicians
2    “Music is divine but the profession is shit”

Ruth Hansford is manager of the BBC’s Noise Project.

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