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Musical notes falling on deaf ears


25 September 2013

French horn players are one of the most at-risk orchestral groups for developing noise-induced hearing loss. Co-author Ian O'Brien (centre) is a horn player himself.
French horn players are one of the most at-risk orchestral groups for developing noise-induced hearing loss. Co-author Ian O'Brien (centre) is a horn player himself.

French horn players are not heeding warnings to protect their ears during rehearsals and performances, according to a study released by a collaborative research team from the University of Queensland and the University of Sydney.

The study, published online in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, presents evidence that French horn players are one of the most at-risk orchestral groups for developing noise-induced hearing loss.

The researchers assessed 144 French horn players attending an international conference in Brisbane and found as few as 18 percent regularly used any form of hearing protection. Furthermore, as many as one-third of players tested exhibited some form of hearing loss.

Lead author Wayne Wilson, from the University of Queensland School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, says the hearing testing was conducted in practice rooms within a conservatorium of music where background noise levels were minimal.

"We performed otoscopy on each participant to rule out canal obstruction or wax occlusion, and hearing thresholds were obtained in each ear using standard audiological assessment procedures."

"Even mild hearing loss can result in difficulties discriminating pitch, abnormal loudness growth and tinnitus, all of which can effect a musician's ability to perform, subsequently jeopardising his or her livelihood."

Co-author on the paper, Ian O'Brien, a professional horn player and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney's School of Medical Sciences based at Lidcombe, says the majority of players admitted they never used hearing protection, and only half of those who wore earplugs used devices specially designed for musicians.

"Our findings reinforce the need to educate horn players, their mentors and audiologists about the need to protect hearing and how best to achieve this while still enabling musicians to play to the highest level," says O'Brien.

The researchers suggest increased efforts to better manage the hearing health of orchestral musicians, particularly as any hearing loss affects a musician's ability to perform and their livelihood.

"While OHS practices in this sector are becoming effective in some professional orchestras, less activity is evident within schools of music and in the broader music community. Evidence-based best practice regarding injury prevention and management for musicians is now beginning to emerge and these practices now need to be effectively communicated to the players themselves," suggests O'Brien.

O'Brien, who commenced his research while based in Queensland, is now a member of the Sound Practice Project based at the University of Sydney. The project is the first attempt to develop sound conceptual and theoretical principles on which to frame occupational health and safety policy and practice for professional orchestral musicians.

It comprises a unique collaboration of research academics from the University of Sydney, the eight major orchestras of Australia, the Australian Research Council Linkage Grant Scheme and the Australia Council for the Arts, who are working together to improve the occupational health of Australia's professional orchestral musicians.


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Media enquiries: Victoria Hollick, 02 9351 2579, victoria.hollick@sydney.edu.au