April 3, 2018
It’s no news that exposure to loud music can damage hearing. The Who’s Pete Townshend might be the poster boy for rock musicians who attribute their tinnitus or deafness to high-decibel concert volumes, but the list of sufferers is long and growing longer. A landmark lawsuit now underscores what numerous studies have been suggesting for years: Classical music — particularly in orchestral settings — is loud enough to damage hearing, too.
Britain’s High Court upheld violist Christopher Goldscheider’s claim that his career was ruined when he sustained permanent, irreversible damage caused by “acoustic shock” during a rehearsal with the Royal Opera House orchestra in 2012. According to Goldscheider, the orchestra was crammed into the pit to practice Wagner’s Die Walküre, and he was forced to sit directly in front of the large brass section, which generated blasts of more than 137 decibels — in the range of a military jet engine taking off. The violist argued that the exposure ruined his professional and personal life, and that he suffers from hyperacusis, tinnitus, and dizziness.
The Royal Opera House argued that Goldscheider’s problems occurred because he developed a chronic inner-ear disorder called Meniere’s disease, an assertion the court rejected. The court also dismissed the opera company’s argument that they had gone to great lengths to protect the musicians, but that “a balance had to be struck between artistic considerations and the safety of musicians.”
In her judgment, Justice Nicola Davies ruled that the Royal Opera House breached the Control of Noise at Work Regulations by failing to protect the hearing of its musicians. Specifically, she noted:
The reliance upon ‘artistic value’ implies that statutory health and safety requirements must cede to the needs and wishes of the artistic output of the opera company, its managers and conductors. Such a stance is unacceptable, musicians are entitled to the protection of the law as is any other worker.
Although damages have yet to be confirmed, Goldscheider sued for £750,000 ($1,054,185) in lost earnings. The potential for a full award sends a chilling message to orchestras and music ensembles everywhere and raises many questions about how to protect musicians and their hearing on the job.