Sound level of a violin and potential for hearing damage

Edited: October 31, 2017, 2:56 PM · (This topic came up as an offtopic side discussion in a different thread; better give it a thread on its own.)

Statement: violins are loud enough to cause hearing damage. Do you agree or disagree? Do you take precautions?

With my violin (student-grade rental), a decibel meter held close to the left ear measures 90-95 dB(A), while I play ff in 1st position. If I play mf, it's about 85 dB(A).

This is measured with a dedicated sound-level meter. I don't trust decibel meter apps on my phone (Android; one decibel meter app flatlines at 78 dB, the other at 85 dB, even if I hold the phone next to the f-hole and play double stops.)

I think the dB meter registers higher sound levels than my ear, because the ear is in the acoustic shade of my head in my normal playing position, whereas the dB meter has the microphone sitting 25-50 mm (1-2 in) from my ear, with a better "view" of the violin body. If I turn my head so that the ear faces the violin belly, it feels much louder (uncomfortable, actually.)

I suppose that high-quality violins with strong projection might be considerably louder. (Let's not start a discussion on whether projection is equivalent to loud or not...)

In the European OSH guidelines, hearing protection is recommended in the workplace above 80 dB(A) and obligatory above 85 dB(A). These numbers are for averages over 8-hour work days. (Note that averaging decibels is tricky. For sustained noise at 90 dB(A), the maximum exposure would be 48 minutes per day, with negligble noise levels (<70 dB(A) for the rest of the day).)

Here are the numbers with a practice mute, measured the same way as above for ff:

I bought the dB meter a few months ago, and after the first measurement, without being aware of the acousting shading due to my head, I decided to practice with a mute most of the time. Now I'm doubting whether that's really necessary for my 1 h/day practice, although my wife would probably disagree. :-) I'd need to figure out a way to measure the true sound level as registered by my ear. Maybe I'll ask my wife to hold the sound meter microphone against my ear and take the readings.

Replies (31)

Edited: October 31, 2017, 3:22 PM · I got similar readings with someone holding the sound meter next to my ear.
I use the dBC setting as in this case I am interested in ear damage rather than perception.

I use -20dB plugs for all playing. Even if we get used to the din, the dB are still there, ginding away those hair-cells in the cochlea!

I too have a real sound meter: not enough to take my neighbours to court, but enough to compare different situations.

Edited: October 31, 2017, 3:36 PM · Hmm, dB(C) is for loudness perception at high levels. For the risk of hearing damage, dB(A) is the one you need to use. The frequency-dependent of the sensitivity of the ear is related to the filtering effect of the cochlea and the resonance of the ear canal (from pinna to eardrum) around 3 kHz, so there is really less acoustic energy being dumped into the hair cells at frequencies that you're less sensitive to. There is a good reason that both the US and EU OSH guidelines specify allowed sound levels in dB(A) and not dB(C).

What do you mean by "get used to the din"?

October 31, 2017, 4:18 PM · Due to an unrelated (to the violin) health condition, I have to have my hearing tested every year. Despite 51 years of playing the violin, I have, according to the audiologist, "the hearing of a child." No damage.

I only rarely use ear plugs; usually for amplified pops shows and the occasional very loud piece (most recently Shostakovich 12).

October 31, 2017, 5:18 PM · It really depends on you. If you believe that your violin is screaming in your ears (that's me), I would wear an ear plug in the left ear. I just use an ordinary one, and I use it for practice because I'm sensitive and feel like my violin screams in my ears sometimes.
Edited: October 31, 2017, 5:39 PM · Mary Ellen, I'm glad for you; it's quite surprising actually and perhaps not the norm. Hearing damage amongst orchestral players is well documented (average -6dB earing loss). I for one wear a musician earplug (-15dB) in my left ear most of the time. If I don't, after an hour of practice I can definitely notice some deafening in my left ear and some ringing. That can't be a good thing.

P.s. my instrument isn't particularly loud either, pretty much average.

October 31, 2017, 10:25 PM · Does Samvel Yervinyan wear an earplug on his left ear when he's playing?

November 1, 2017, 12:45 AM · If I play loud when practising (if I try a run on a violin concerto mostly) I can feel my left ear ringing and some kind of pressure feeling on it for about 2 hours after I stopped.
My left ear dropped in hearing capability without any known cause at the same time I started to develop a good volume on the violin.
It is of course not any kind of proove but I suspect the violin. My right ear is much much better than average on my age while my left is significant under the avareage (still not as bad to consider hearing aids).
I started to wear earplugs on my left ear when practising a few years back. When playing with others I dont do that. Sometimes it is also nice to hear the sound maily from the right ear as it is more the kind of sound others hear.
November 1, 2017, 1:19 AM · On practicing with a mute, both my teacher and Menuhin in his book ‘Violin and Viola’ recommend it. There’s an urban legend that says practicing with a mute is bad and is ‘harmful’ for the sound, I personally don’t know.

Not as important as volume for effects on hearing is duration of exposure. Practicing 1 hour at 90 dB is not as harmful as 4 hours at 70 dB. I’m not an expert at dB calculations of course, Han should be much more qualified than me on the subject, but I think that idea of duration>exposure still applies.

I always use an -35 dB classic earplug in my left ear. I never put it all the way in though, just a little bit.
At one point I tried using earplugs in both ears, didn’t work for me. I think it’s actually a good thing for everyone to put an earplug in your left ear. It teaches you to listen with your right ear, which as Marc said is actually more like the sound an audience would hear, you listen from a distance, as opposed to listening from the left ear.
Reminds me of Milstein, who used to hold the violin against his chest, which gave him more listening distance between the violin and his ears.

Made a quick search on internet, there seems to be quite a big market of earplugs for classical musicians out there. There even are some ‘high-fidelity’ ones, that lower the volume without distorting the sound. I wonder how they feel!

November 1, 2017, 1:35 AM · I use on of those and they are a bit better than the other ones. I have to say they distort less, but they still do.
Practising with mute imho is only a good idea if your tone is developed very good.
November 1, 2017, 1:40 AM · Last time I checked (maybe 10 years ago) my HF threshold was raised by about 6dB in the left ear. I'm not aware of it though, so I hope my hearing will survive a couple of hours playing a day for another 10 years. I'd hate to use an earplug or a mute!

Recording myself on various violins I was surprised to find very little difference in their overall sound levels. The ones that sounded the most penetrating were in fact a couple of old factory violins following the Stainer model. They definitely felt like they could cause damage! Not as much as sitting on the back desk of the violas with the trombone section right behind though.

Edited: November 1, 2017, 3:50 AM · Steve, hearing damage is cumulative. The loss due to noise exposure comes on top of what you would lose anyway due to the normal process of aging.

Getting hard of hearing with age seems to run in my family (both parents and one grandparent), even though they didn't have jobs or hobbies with a lot of noise exposure. So, I have reason to be careful. I had my ears checked a few years back and they were OK, although I don't remember whether that meant "OK for my age" or "like a child".

Roman, "Practicing 1 hour at 90 dB is not as harmful as 4 hours at 70 dB."
Not correct. In terms of acoustic energy, every 3 dB difference is equivalent to a factor 2 in time. This is called the 3 dB exchange rate (ER). Hence,1 hour at 90 dB is equivalent to 4 hours at 84 dB or 100 hours at 70 dB. The 3 dB ER is used in OSH noise regulations all over the world, except in the US and Brazil, which use a 5 dB ER, according to which 1 hour at 90 dB is equiavelent to 4 hours at 80 dB. (The 5 dB ER has been disputed, see e.g. Recommended Changes to OSHA Noise Exposure Dose Calculation. This report is written by a manufacturer of hearing protection - potential bias - but it is still a thorough review of the available evidence.)

November 1, 2017, 4:31 AM · My "rule of thumb" is to gently rub it with my middle finger an inch or two from the ear canal and pay particular attention to the high-frequency rustling noises. There's no apparent asymmetry left vs. right so at 67 I reckon I'm doing OK, hearing-wise at least.
Edited: November 1, 2017, 4:37 AM · I'm wondering whether the amount of hearing damage depends on whether the violin's sound is more "directional" or more "3D". If the former, you could arrange your chin rest so that your violin's sound mostly misses your ear.

On a more serious note, one of my ears rings constantly. Guess which one. Now, that could have been from childhood ear infections (or the antibiotics used to treat them) but I'm not taking any chances: My daughter practices with hearing protection (she wears a pair of old headphones with the cord cut off).

Edited: November 1, 2017, 6:27 AM · Great, now you have given me something else to think about. I thought about how loud the violin was in a room, ie., how loud the instrument is to others, but not to myself. Normally, and after eight years under fighter jets I just don't think about my hearing. Guess I better start thinking about it now.
November 1, 2017, 6:46 AM · Will Willy, I don't know which of the violinists is Samvel, but for example at 4:31, you see something in the right ear, with a wire coming out, so I'd guess it's a monitor so that they can hear themselves over the amplified sound stage. In-ear monitors can double as hearing protection. Actually, they should, because if the stage is already so loud that you can't hear your own instrument, it would be a bad idea to turn up the monitor volume so much that it drowns out the background noise.
November 1, 2017, 6:47 AM · It makes sense that thousands of hours of a violin 4 inches from my left ear would cause hearing loss, but it is my right ear that has suffered more loss than my left.

I started to use a lightly inserted plug in my left ear (12 - 18 db attenuation) for violin playing when I was about 50 and it improved my intonation because loud sound can overdrive your hearing and cause you to hear sharp, tending to make you play flat. What I had noticed, tuning in orchestra was that I heard the tuning pitch sound too fuzzy to me - I blamed it on the oboe, until I realized it was my own violin's sound that was getting to my brain as 2 slightly different pitches. As my hearing got worse I finally got a cheap "hearing aid" that I used in my right ear - by that time my unplugged left ear worked pretty much as though it had a plug in it. I don't think my own hearing loss is due to playing music - just inherited from one of my grandpas. (Thank God for digital haring aids!)

November 1, 2017, 8:25 AM · That sounds about right, Andrew - ask a fiddler with hearing loss whether he has any fsmily history, and usually either the answer is Yes, or he did something else much louder at some time, whether occupational or musical (e.g. electric guitar or loud amplified fiddle).

However - I had a French violin for many years that would go into a mood if the humidity changed suddenly, and produce overtones that would stun a camel. In a room without soft furnishings it could feel distinctly uncomfortable. I suggest such instruments are the exception rather than the rule, and also that even then, few violinists will suffer hearng loss for that reason. Playing violin (or anything else) in a symphony orchestra too close to the 'kitchen department' or close in front of a trombone might be different.

November 1, 2017, 8:27 AM · I have slightly lower hearing in my left ear, not from violin but from being with my dad when he shot shot guns. He never wore ear protection, so I didn't think it was necessary either until later. Then another incident happened when I was in close proximity to an engine that backfired. It was similar to setting off a large firework right at my head.One other thing I remember is riding my bike along the road and for kicks someone threw out a handful of firecrackers which went off right next to me.

I can still hear my fingers rubbing together in both ears, but I do notice a difference between left and right sides. And maybe some of it is we have a dominant ear?

November 1, 2017, 8:57 AM · Etymotic makes earplugs for many uses. They have an entire line of earplugs for musicians that reduce sound energy (the dB) and retain the frequency spectrum. I use their low price $25 product while practicing and it sounds much like having a mute on the violin, but low and high notes are still distinct.

Hearing loss is cumulative and irreversible. IMO, it makes no sense to take the risk of hearing loss when several types of inexpensive protection are available.

November 1, 2017, 9:40 AM · Han, thank you for your precise comments.
"Din" just means a lot of noise!

BTW, it seems to me that 90dB from a violin is concentrated on one or two sound at a time: might not this be worse than the more spread frequency content of e.g. 90db of traffic or subway noise?

Edited: November 1, 2017, 10:48 AM · Adrian, that is actually a difficult question to answer, but I will try. Indeed, those OSH guidelines are for broad-spectrum industrial noise. If you were exposed to 1 kHz sine waves all day long, which stimulates only a small number of hair cells, the exposure limit in dBA should be much lower.

However, that doesn't apply that much to violin sound. Noise-induced hearing loss is most often in the 3-6 kHz band which is where the violin has a lot of partials, and which is also the range that is emphasized by the dB (A) weighting.

For example, the harmonics of C5 (523 Hz) are C6 (1046), G6 (1569), C7, (2093), E7 (2616), G7 (3139), Bb7 (3663), C8 (4186), and so on. And when you play a different tone, the harmonics will all be at different frequencies. So, on average, you will cover a broadband spectrum. Now, unlike me, you of course have excellent intonation and always tune at A440, so you will never touch 1077 Hz (halfway between C and C#). But I think even a pure sine wave will stimulate a range of hair cells; our brain has to quite a bit of signal processing to figure out that 1077 is out of tune, since it will get nerve responses from hair cells around that frequency.

It is assumed that noise-induced hearing loss is caused by cumulative exposure to acoustic energy; whether the different frequencies come in simultaneously (white noise) or sequentially (frequency sweep) doesn't matter. If you're exposed only to a particular frequency band, it could be better - in theory - to adjust the exposure limits accordingly, but in practice, the difference would probably be negligible compared to the differences between indivduals. Moreover, A-weighting is a coarse approximation anyway of the potential for causing hearing damage, both in comparison to the true sensitivity spectrum of the ear and due to the fact that "safe noise levels" are based on data on people exposed to typical industrial noise, which typically does not have a white-noise spectrum either.

Here is a spectrogram of a violin concerto. You see how the range 3-6 kHz has most of the spectral content. (note: the color scale is not explained; there are various ways to plot a spectrogram, which may or may not deemphasize higher frequencies.)

Edited: November 1, 2017, 4:41 PM · Ah, hearing loss...just one of the reasons why I like to rock it old school as much as possible--gets the fiddle considerably farther away from the ears.

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November 1, 2017, 6:04 PM · A most interesting picture!
November 1, 2017, 11:39 PM · Milstein used to play with the violin like that if I’m not abused
Edited: November 10, 2017, 2:39 PM · Fancy spending days and days painting a picture of someone holding violin & bow all wrong!! ;-)
November 2, 2017, 6:50 AM · I tried the Etymotic ear plugs but prefer Vater's - they fit better, last longer, and are designed for musicians as well. I only use the earplug in my left ear, and I actually prefer the stronger red filter ("reduces about 20db between 125-500 Hz; 24db @1000 Hz and about 30db between 2000-8000 Hz"). The green filter only reduces 16-20db, and my left ear will feel abused after an hour practice session.

I had my hearing checked in the spring, after practicing daily without any ear protection I started getting a thrumming sensation in my ears and lots of ringing - my hearing reflected no damage and was considered to be excellent. Go figure.

Still, I'd rather be safe than sorry, as we only get one set of ears!

November 5, 2017, 9:58 AM · I practice a lot of explosive pieces (loud af) and i think my ears just tune out. I only notice when i finish playing and the residual ring from the last note is sounding out how loud my violin is. But the thing is, when i picked my violin , i picked it exactly for its loudness and brightness XD.
November 5, 2017, 10:47 AM · I have expensive, computer controlled hearing aids. Orchestra musicians think they immune from hearing damage because none of the instruments are amplified. Violinists don't realize how loud the sound from the top plate is, only three inches from the left ear. Use something in your left ear, even the cheap foam plug, and use your orchestra mute for some of your practicing. The culprit is the hi-frequency peak impacts. In the back of the second violin section I am directly down-wind from the piccolo. In the back of the viola section I am right in front of the trumpets. When we did Rite of Spring I had the honor of sitting next to the timpani. And, I suppose working on a black-powder cannon crew didn't help! Most people gradually loose the top octave, 10-20 K Hz. When the next octave, 5-10 K Hz goes, we start loosing speech comprehension. It is very gradual and insidious. jq
Edited: November 5, 2017, 11:21 AM · Joel, I can't tell from your post: do you need those hearing aids due to damage from violin playing?

And: if you're already on hearing aids, do you still need protection? I'd say yes, unless you want to destroy the few remaining hair cells as well, but how does that work in practice? Take out the hearing aids and put earplugs in?

Yunfan, so, what's your message? Do you worry about your ears or not?

November 5, 2017, 12:44 PM · I do have hearing loss, nothing left above 3000 Hz. Plus tinnitus. I don't think that this is caused by the violin because my left and right ear are the same. But worse, if I play without an earplug in my left ear, the ear "burns out" - after 10 minutes my hearing is distorted, useful but not right. If I play with a band (acoustic), the earplug (Etymotic molded earplug, -9 db I think) cuts out so much that I can't play well with the band.

The best solution that I have found is to use a hollow body electric violin (Bridge Aquila, but there are others). I don't need an earplug. I can hear it but my ear doesn't burn out.

But this got me thinking. Could you move the f holes on a violin to reduce left ear noise without ruining the sound? To the far end of the top plate? To the far end ribs? To the bottom plate? Would this actually reduce the sound at your left ear? It would change the stiffness of the top plate. And you would need a way to set the soundpost. I have no expertise to try this. It might be very helpful to a lot of people.

November 5, 2017, 4:13 PM · Han,-- I don't know if my hearing loss is from the violin, the other instruments like trumpet, piccolo, playing in a very loud band when I was younger (Don Ellis band), percussion, or black powder shooting(!), or all of the above. I use them all the time. It has two settings; speech or music. It boosts the frequencies I need and clamps, dampens,anything too loud. If you just need protection there are less expensive options. My ear doctor offers sets designed for musicians, restaurant workers, swimmers, etc.
Cary-- a Luthier will give a better answer, but the f-holes primary function is not to let the sound out; they divide the top plate into 4 different sound-radiating surfaces, and equalize the air pressure, which would inhibit the sound if it were a completely sealed box. jq

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