When we think of hearing loss in musicians, we’re likely to picture a haggard Keith Richards saying, “What? Didn’t’ catch that, love!” However, we seldom stop to think about how our hearing is affected by going to see a symphony orchestra. Furthermore, we don’t often think about the effects of loud music on the musicians themselves. Why? Perhaps we think it’s too sophisticated an institution to worry about such nonsense.

But it isn’t nonsense.

Classical music performers are lambasted with high noise levels for about five to six hours daily. For example, a sound level of a double bass can reach about 83 dB. A flute or percussion instrument can produce as much as 95 dB of harmful noise. 85 dB is the maximum level of exposure to noise that is safe for your hearing. Musician’s need the ability to differentiate sounds in a nuanced way, so hearing preservation is doubly important. Although many classical musicians may be concerned about hearing damage, use of protective hearing devices is rare among them.

Recently, in Helsinki, Finland, a study was conducted to measure classical musicians’ risk of hearing loss. There were 63 participants in the study from four Helsinki classical orchestras. Hearing loss was measured with an audiometer and they were questioned about their prior exposure to sound. Individual susceptibility factors were also taken into account through a questionnaire. Present sound exposure was measured with a dosimeter (a device that measures exposure to elements present in the environment). The musicians overall health was examined; blood pressure and cholesterol levels were documented.

The results of the study showed that 15% of musicians suffered from permanent tinnitus, as compared to 2% in the non-musician population. 41% were affected by temporary tinnitus from group rehearsals and 18% from individual rehearsals.

It is documented that an astonishing 43% of classical musicians suffer from a condition called Hyperacusis, which is a disorder that causes reduced tolerance to sound levels that are not normally experienced as loud for people with normal hearing.

The next time you hear the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, take a moment to think about your possible exposure to noise that’s harmful to your hearing. And…take pity on any musician sitting in front of the horn section.