Are Broadway Musicals Too Loud?
“The increasingly loud, sometimes impossibly obstreperous volume of most recent Broadway musicals is the result of a perfect storm of the evolution in popular music, impact from other media, and innovations in technology.” – Laurence Maslon
Professor Maslon of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts writes an interesting article (“Ears Are Ringing”) in the August 2014 issue of Opera News, chronicling the rise in decibel levels. In recommendation of the entire article, we’ll share a few highlights.
Growing But Misunderstood. The sound-design field for Broadway musicals has expanded over the past decade, with the Tony Awards committee adding best sound design categories (musical, play) in 2008. This summer the committee removed these categories; anonymous sources admitted that many voters do not know what sound design is or how to assess it. (For more on this decision, check out this article from Stage Directions.)
Louder and Louder. While the merits of a particular show’s sound design can be debated, it only takes a decibel meter to assess which direction volume levels are going today: up! Many popular musicals like Matilda and Wicked are more likely to feature scores inspired by rock music and its associated electronic enhancements than by older music traditions. Many popular modern composers are rooted in rock music.
Masking Noise. Theatrically, Maslon describes the 1980s as “a decade of hydraulics” with apparatus used to move massive scenery and set pieces around. These mechanical effects – and automated lighting systems – both make noise that must be overcome by musicians and vocalists.
Entertainment Continuum. It’s not just Broadway musicals getting louder, but popular entertainment overall – whether teeth-rattling movie soundtracks or personalized audio piped through custom headphones. [Approximately 15% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have hearing loss from work or leisure activities. As many as 16 percent of U.S. teenagers reported some hearing loss in a 2010 report.]
Enabled by Technology. Theatres are utilizing sophisticated electronic microphones that are smaller and cheaper. For example, Maslon says tiny microphones sewn into pant cuffs helped amplify young Billy’s tap-dancing skills in Billy Elliott. Later, panels in the stage floor were miked to enhance the sound. In South Pacific, one male lead wore a lavalier mike on his chest to pick up the bass frequencies missed by his head mike.
How Did We Get Here? In his essay “Losing Your Ears to Music”, Bernard D. Sherman expertly traces the evolution of loud music beyond theatre. He notes that even in the late 18th century, most ensembles and performing venues were significantly smaller than today. But by the mid-1800s, voices and orchestras both increased in volume. Sherman explains why:
The reasons were at least partly economic. The opera houses and concert halls had to expand in order to provide more seats for paying customers. Aristocrats no longer funded the arts as their personal preserve, so revenues came more and more from the paying middle class… To fill the larger halls with sufficient sound, the voices, instruments and ensembles had to crank up to potentially ear-damaging levels.
Can You Say That Again? Both Maslon and Sherman don’t see the volume trend reversing. Sherman advises musicians who are most at risk to protect themselves with custom-fit reusable earplugs — purchased through an audiologist — that reduce decibel levels evenly across all frequencies. As audience members, we try to remember to pack foam earplugs for movies or concerts. What’s your own hearing-protection solution, either as a performer, technician or audience member?