Orchestral Sound Levels

...and what can be done when it all gets too much

A Guide for Amateur Orchestra Players and Organisers

October 2012

Martin Brown, clarinetist with the Ku-ring-gai Philharmonic Orchestra, prepared this paper covering many aspects of sound levels in orchestras and what can be done to manage these sound levels. Thanks to Martin for making this available to members of the Music in Communities Network.


We all accept that if we want to be part of a full symphony orchestra, it's occasionally going to get LOUD.  Bruckner pales into insignificance next to Helka by Jon Leifs depicting the eruption of an Icelandic volcano which calls for 140 musicians including 19 percussionists and organ as well as a chorus, 1/2 ton bells, sirens, "musical rocks" being belted by hammers, canons, and more.

After many, many rehearsals and concerts struggling to play as well as I can with earplugs in, I decided to do an investigation into orchestral sound levels and how other players and orchestras have dealt with it.

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  • Is there really a problem?
  • The raw data
    • Sound frequencies
    • The effect of distance
    • Directional effects
    • Adding more players
    • Supersonic shock waves
    • Are younger players more susceptible to higher sound levels?
  • What can we do about it?
    • Personal sound shells
    • Earplugs
    • Quieter playing
    • Player positioning
    • Less reverberant venues