11 May 2016
Royal Armouries, Leeds
Your Aural Toolkit: a Guide to Preserving your Hearing for Sound Professionals
24 June 2016
Music, Noise and Silence: the muted history of understandings of hearing risk through music
“If anyone were told that the loudest parts in the first movement were only a weak child compared to those in the last movement, he would be afraid for his eardrums…” (Gustav Mahler on his 2nd Symphony)
The idea that loud noise might damage hearing dates back to antiquity, when Pliny described hearing loss in those who lived near a large Nile cataract. The first systematic study of the risks of industrial noise was by Barr (1888) who showed that boilermakers suffered significant hearing impairment compared to other shipyard workers. However, it was not until the Who’s Pete Townsend made public his music-induced hearing loss in the 1980s that we began to fully recognise that music could be similarly damaging. Whilst there is substantial historical literature on the dangers of industrial or other unwanted noise (e.g. Dembe, 1996), and on music as nuisance noise (e.g. Thompson, 2004; Bijsterveld, 2008), there has been little attention directed towards the risks of loud yet desirable sound to both musicians and audiences.
This paper will explore the historical development of understandings of hearing risk specifically through music from the late 19thC to the mid-20thC. From concerns about ‘nervous’ damage, or distraction through unwanted music (e.g. Babbage and Dickens’ 1860s campaign against street musicians), it will move through claims about the effects of early 20thC large-scale orchestral works such as Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, to end with Stokowski’s desire for crowd-stunning loudness in his telephonic transmissions with Bell labs in 1940s America.