Sound Scrutiny - Mozart's Music Measured

Vancouver's new concert hall, the Chan Centre at UBC, is acoustically excellent. There is no discernible reverberation, and even the softest pianissimo can be well heard in the rear and on the balconies. This property is not always found in other halls. Very unfortunately, though, undesirable, disturbing sounds can also be heard throughout the house equally well. Those unprogrammed sounds like coughing, rustling with candy wrappers or the programme, having a private conversation with one's neighbour or, God forbid, on a cellphone, ringing or beeping gadgets etc. can ruin a good performance.

Also, on some balconies there are regular chairs which, when moved on the bare concrete floor, make an annoying noise. And some of the self-shutting doors to the atrium shut with a well audible bang that usually does not coincide with a complimentary sound from the programmed performance. Only a well disciplined audience will avoid this disturbing noise. But such a virtue, it seems, is becoming an endangered species.

In the afternoon of September 19, 1999, there was an all-Mozart concert, which was recorded by the CBC for later radio broadcast. Equipped with a digital sound-level meter I sat in my wheelchair on the first balcony at the north side, approximately 12 meters from the centre of the stage. The meter (UEI model DSM 100) was generously supplied by one of our members. The following readings were obtained with the meter set at the A-scale and fast response.

Sounds from people entering, shuffling about and chatting prior to the concert ranged between 48 and 67 dBA. Once the CBC Vancouver Radio Orchestra was fully assembled and radio host Eric Friesen spoke on the stage, the sound levels fluctuated between 61 and 68 dBA. After Mr. Friesen had finished the introduction the applause peaked at 95 dBA!

The programme started with the Symphony No. 33 in B flat, followed by the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 20 in D minor. Maestro Mario Bernardi conducted. During the symphony the sound levels ranged between 62 and 85 dBA. The concerto rang in from 41.5 to 83 dBA. Renowned pianist Angela Cheng was totally devoted to the music. Her solos ranged between 41.5 and 81.6 dBA. Interestingly, the applause after the music reached a peak of "only" 88.8 dBA.

During the intermission, when many people had left the hall, the sound levels were no louder than a calm to an animated conversation at my place: 49.6 to 57.9 dBA. Over this background, the spring-loaded door 1.5 metres from me fell shut with a bang of 62 dBA. By contrast, a chair dragged on the balcony floor some 3 metres away registered at 67 dBA, and another one on the stage below at 63.5 dBA. A lady's high-heeled shoes on the concrete floor produced 64 dBA. People returning to their seats and orchestra members practising on the stage combined measured between 56 and 73 dBA.

Maestro Bernardi's return triggered an applause that peaked at 84 dBA. The next piece was Serenade No. 6 in D (Serenata Notturna). It generated sound levels between 50.5 and 77 dBA, while Maestro Bernardi had the left hand in his pocket; pretty cool. This serenade was rewarded with an applause peaking at 89.3 dBA. The musicians did a quick tuning at a peak of 75.6 dBA before they played the Symphony No. 34 in C. It started at 80.7 dBA and then continued between 48.1 and 82 dBA.

This was a greatly enjoyable concert during which I wore light foam earplugs with an attenuation of approximately 5 to 6 dB. I heard everything very well. The first bout of applause was rather uncomfortably loud for me, even with the earplugs in. One could speculate what sound levels of around 125 dBA during a rock concert are doing to the hearing of the attending audience.

Aside from physiological effects of loud music on the hearing, there are certainly psychological effects. Much was and is said and written about the "Mozart Effect" and how beneficial this music can be. Interestingly, in a very short article The Province, a Vancouver daily, on Sunday, March 16, 2003, reported the following: "Adams hailed as miracle worker. The music of Vancouver rocker Bryan Adams may have saved the life of Christiane Kittel, a German fan of Adams who fell into a coma six years ago and has remained in a vegetative state. A local paper paid for tickets for the Kittel family to go see Adams. During the concert, Christiane began to move around (or dance) in her wheelchair and seemed "fascinated" by Adams. Later, she allegedly continued to move and called out for her mom."

If indeed true, this could imply that, unlike with antibiotics, different individuals benefit from different types of music. In this particular example it could very well be that the sound levels had played a greater role than the music. Rock concerts, usually amplified to very high levels, may not literally awaken the dead, but could possibly rouse a person from a coma. Perhaps he or she will then be afflicted with tinnitus or some other hearing impairment.

-Hans Schmid

Right to Quiet Society Newsletter, Spring 2003

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