Has harmful noise any relation to music? Part 1


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By Peter McKinnon
– Bass trombone, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

1) What is happening to the level of sound in our symphony and opera orchestras?

2) Why are we brass and percussion players injuring our colleagues with dangerous decibel levels?

3) Is it really necessary for string and woodwind players to use hearing protectors and a forest of plexi-glass shields after a long and demanding musical education?

These are three questions that all brass players should ask themselves!

Part One:

My answers to the above are the following:

My goal is to convey my own soul searching, and to describe the measaures that I have taken to change direction in my own work area.  Here, I must confess to having been an advocate of the-bigger-the-more-sound-produced-the-better brigade. But, since having been elected work environment ombudsman for my own orchestra I’ve really begun to realise the faults in my own thinking.  This coupled with the fact that my own GSO section colleagues have developed an interest in pre 2nd world war trombone constructions. This interest has been furthered thanks to Ingemar Roos’ connections with a fantastic trombone maker in Germany called Glassl.

The change to large bore instruments

1812 Overture - GSOWhy did tenor trombone players change to large-bore instruments? I can remember when I first started going to live symphony orchestra concerts in the early 1960’s, the usual size of instrument used were medium large bore e.g. Conn 6H. Nowadays, the standard setup is two 88H’s or equivalent. At the same period, in a number of Scandinavian orchestras, the 88H was used to perform bass parts. So things really have changed.

Yesteryear’s large bore = today’s small bore

In Britain as I have said, the tenors used 6H’s or equivalent but even these instruments were much larger than, for example, the instruments that Elgar wrote for. The trombone section in his day comprised of two rather small bore tenor trombones and a G-Bass that had a similar or smaller bore than a modern symphony tenor trombone.

Noise and silence

I will now attempt to answer the questions I posed earlier. The fact that decibel levels have risen drastically in the past three and a half decades probably stems from the general increase in noise that we are all subjected to in our daily lives.  When was the last time you, the reader, experienced complete silence? No, I can not remember off hand either, but it was probably during a hearing examination in a soundproof booth at the doctors!

Thing’s aint what they used to be

Sibelius symphonies - GSOThe sound level of brass playing is certainly directly related to the equipment used by present day orchestral musicians. Present day equipment is very much bigger and, therefore, capable of producing much higher decibel levels than instruments used in the ’30’s and ’40’s.

The bore of modern trumpets and trombones, and their mouthpieces, is definitely much greater than those used by players of earlier generations.

This is of special significance when even the late romantic composers such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler had as a sound picture the instruments used by their contemporary brass players.

Harmful decibel levels

There is therefore, no need for us to go to the extreme and harmful decibel levels that are currently in use. Also, the fact that we are physically stronger than our predecessors, due to better diet and living conditions cannot entirely be ruled out. Add to that our teaching methods and practice drills make us, especially in the aspect of stamina, capable of making more noise than our forefathers. One need only cast a glimpse at the advances and achievements in the field of athletics to support this contention.

We must never forget that we are involved in art, and not athletics. We help to reproduce the wonderful musical concepts of Brahms’ and Bruckner’s cathedral-like symphonies, and are not involved in some maximum decibel Olympic Games.

No one is going to award us a gold medal for ruining a colleagues hearing or forcing the entire viola section to use earplugs!

Continued in Part 2

3 Responses to “Has harmful noise any relation to music? Part 1”

  1. Cherry says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful information. What do we do about the snare drums?

    • Jon says:

      Great question! It depends on the setting – orchestra, rock, marching band etc.

      In the orchestral setting however, sound shields and sound shells (as well as diligent conductors!) can be a great help.

  2. Derek says:

    Not sure I agree with some of your points, Peter. I am not convinced that bore size affects the amount of decibels produced. I would be surprised if a small bore trumpet did not produce the same amount of decibels in the course of normal playing as a large bore trumpet. Have orchestras really got louder than they were in the past? What evidence are you basing this on? Maybe players simply more conscious of hearing issues these days? Just my two cents.

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