Percussion on the Ear Drums

No wonder I don’t hear so good! Dadblasted drummers! (love you Alex.)

New York Times
September 25, 2005
There’s ‘Sis’ and ‘Bah,’ but ‘Boom’ Is a Menace

YESTERDAY, as on other fall Saturdays, student musicians around the country performed in their school marching bands, revving up football fans with classics like “When the Saints Go Marching In” and the theme from “Hawaii Five-O.”

Yet from the standpoint of their hearing, they were only slightly better off than if they had been jackhammering the parking lot. A study at Duke University has confirmed what musicians and band directors have known anecdotally for years: playing in a marching band can be hazardous to your health.

Joseph Keefe, a Duke graduate who works with an acoustical consulting firm in New Jersey, measured sound pressure levels experienced by band members at Duke and at a local high school in Durham, N.C. At indoor and outdoor rehearsals and during games, he often found levels above 100 decibels for drummers and other percussionists, and for anyone unfortunate enough to march near brass instruments.

While that might not be as noisy as a construction site, which can produce levels of about 110 decibels, band performances can be noisy enough to threaten at least temporary hearing loss. “Plenty loud is a good way to put it,” Mr. Keefe said.

A marching band is loud enough that, over the course of a rehearsal or game, it can exceed workplace recommendations by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which are based on both noise level and time of exposure. At a typical football game, between warming up, and playing in the stands and the halftime show, band members can be exposed to loud music for several hours, said Mr. Keefe, who played the drums in the Duke band.

“If anything, sound levels are slightly higher outside,” Mr. Keefe said, because band members are often told to project more in a stadium to reach far-away fans. “The longer you stay in it, the worse it is.”

Don Peterson, director of the marching band at Brigham Young University, said he typically has a headache at the end of a football game, although he doesn’t even listen directly to the band. He wears a headset to hear cues from the stadium’s technical director to know when to play. Rehearsals are very noisy as well. “The band room we have, if OSHA ever were to take a reading in there, we’d be in prison,” he said.

Many drum heads are now made with Kevlar to produce an extremely sharp sound, something like a gun going off. Cymbal players have it bad, too. “It’s like being a human cannonball,” Dr. Peterson said. “But the worst place in the stands is right in front of the piccolos.”

An easy solution, Mr. Keefe said, is the use of earplugs, especially those designed for musicians that reduce levels without distorting the sound. Mr. Keefe said that he wore custom-fit plugs when he played, but that standard musician models, which cost around $15, or even disposable foam plugs, can help. “But the vast majority of players don’t use them,” he said. In his high school band, Mr. Keefe noted, only one other drummer wore plugs, and only indoors.

Dr. Peterson uses plugs for indoor rehearsals. “I hurt for days after that if I don’t,” he said. And this year the band bought 400 pairs of plugs and offered them to students. About 90 percent of the drummers wear them, he said.

Eileen Alter, the mother of a high-school drummer in Austin, Tex., said she encouraged her son to wear plugs and he now uses them all the time. She said she wished school administrators would make them mandatory. “I think about how in shop class they require kids to wear safety glasses,” she said. “This isn’t any different than that.”

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Author: KB French

Formerly many things, including theology student, mime, jr. high Latin teacher, and Army logistics officer. Currently in the National Guard, and employed as a civilian... somewhere

2 thoughts on “Percussion on the Ear Drums”

  1. This is definately true. After being a part of not only the flute section, but also brass and percussion, I have residual hearing loss. I wore ear plugs, both inside and out, but not all the time. Knowing what I know now about the ear–thanks to psyc of music and physiology–I think ear plugs should be required for a band students, middle and high school, not just marching band.


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