How loud is a decibel? This interactive site will give you some idea. What noise levels are endured by members of orchestras? This site has some interesting and detailed information. New European Union industrial (sic) legislation stipulates that employers must provide protection where noise levels in the workplace exceed 85 dB . This has brought about the phenomenon of bespoke ear plugs (paragraph 21) and some interesting technology (paragraphs 22 & 23). The issue of problematic noise levels has led to pieces being dropped from concert programmes.

According to this article a pipe band, playing at full volume outdoors, peaks at 122 dB. Is it possible musically to arouse national pride at 85dB? In 2005 I attended the Pipefest in Holyrood Park, where 10,000 pipers and drummers broke the Guiness World Record for simultaneous playing. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of spectators seated on the grass. At the sound of so many pipes starting up many people leapt to their feet – fuelled by raw emotion.

You can hear a report on the topic of musicians’ noise-at-work on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House (fast forward to 48 minutes in). It features the bitter irony of the EU anthem consisting of a theme from the Symphony No. 9 of Beethoven – who, by the end of his career, was profoundly deaf.

I once played in a band at a 50th birthday party in The Johnny Cope, Prestonpans. The venue had in place a traffic light system of noise awareness:

  • green = well within limits
  • amber = getting near the upper limit – keep a lid on it
  • red = you’ve overdone it – at which point the power would be cut for 30 seconds or so – it’s a situation you’d want to avoid.

The limit was breached only once. We were on a break, and a kissagram dressed as Tarzan had just entered the room.

2 thoughts on “Decibels”

  1. Was that system in the Johnny Cope automatic or manual, objectively measured or subjective?
    From time to time I use the datalogger with the noise meter displayed on the Smartboard to help children in class to monitor their own noise level. They are usually surprised at how much noise they make and are quite good at responding as a group to rises.
    Last night I was playing in the Verdi Requiem with about 160 singers and was sitting directly in front of the timps, the bass drum, 4 horns and 4 trumpets. There were times eg in the Dies Irae when I could hardly hear what I was playing myself, but I have to admit it was exciting!

  2. Dorothy,

    The sound monitoring system was fully automatic – no value judgements in place – if we’d played The Music of the Spheres too loudly it still would have gone off. The Smartboard strategy you mention sounds very effective. Perhaps if you wrote a short “how to” post, others might take up the idea (apologies if you already have and I’ve missed it).

    The Verdi sounds exciting. Excitement and danger just seem to go hand in hand.

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