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Jessica Duchen
Friday 10th July 2009

I've been stuck at home with a filthy cold, so last night I went neither to the English PEN concert nor to hear my pals in Oi Va Voy doing their klezmer-rock stuff at the Roundhouse. Instead, I was indoors trying to watch a terrifically good gangster movie...with the undesired and unwelcome addition of music from the beyond.

Namely, a Beatles tribute band playing in the Kew Gardens Summer Swing festival - more than two miles away, yet so loud that I could sing along with 'Hey Jude'. Often when music is intrusively loud you hear only the bass. If you can also hear the melody, it must be b****y loud.

If you've been reading JDCMB for a while, you'll know this is a bugbear of mine. I love Kew Gardens, and I adore the Beatles, and Abba, and the Gypsy Kings (who are playing Kew tonight) - even if they haven't anything to do with Swing as such - and I'd find it fun to go along. I enjoy plenty of pop music and hanker to hear live performances by favourite singer-songwriters such as Annie Lennox, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Tanita Tikaram et al - but I don't go, because I do not want to damage my ears. Why is there some unwritten law that if you go to a pop concert, you must risk the health of your hearing in the future in order to be cool? 

Whatever does Health and Safety have to say about pop concerts? Can anyone offer enlightenment, please?

They've already got to our orchestras. The LPO, for one, has regular visits from an ear doctor who checks people's hearing; some orchestras have been lectured in a very unwelcome way by experts who tell them that the brass should play narrow-bore instruments from the 18th century instead of their nice modern ones with valves because they are quieter (you can imagine how that went down), or people deciding how to tweak the programming so that there is quiet music to counterbalance the loud. It may look annoying, but it's a crucial issue, they take it very seriously and that is a good thing.

But where does this leave pop concerts? Isn't anyone going to have a go at those? Because that is where it's needed! It may be loud to sit in the middle of Bruckner 7, but I'd love to measure those decibels as compared to the gig in Kew last night. I reckon it would be way off the Sviatoslav Richter scale.





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Jessica Duchen
July 12th, 2009
8:07 AM
Interesting points, Anonymous, but you haven't explained why the volume has to be of ear-plug demanding levels in the first place. Why surprised that I could hear it? The whole of East Sheen could hear it!! I've since discovered that nearly *everybody* was singing along to 'Hey Jude'. Which I suppose is a nice example of using music to bring the community together, or something........

July 10th, 2009
10:07 PM
Being able to hear it from a distance doesn't necessarily give you an accurate idea of it's loudness. Furthermore, the idea of hearing the bass "first" and the treble "when it's even louder" may be true in some circumstances, but not always, either. You hear the bass from a car playing loud music partly because the higher frequencies are more easily absorbed by the car itself (furnishings, etc). Outdoors, you will likely find that the direction of the wind plays a large part in how far the high freq. sound will travel. If it was blowing largely in your direction, you'll hear it all far more clearly than somebody closer, but the other side of the concert. H&S is (or certainly can be) extremely strict for outdoor concerts - and local council licenses / noise regulations for these events are very strict too - much desired encores but fantastic artists are often denied to an audience because the power to the sound rig must go off at 2230 or 2300 or whenever on the dot, and it does. (I was briefly working on oart of one of the festivals in Hyde Park last summer - one a small, subsiduary stage one afternoon, the artist, a solo guitarist / singer, got on stage ten minutes before the official start of his set, the first of the day. They guy overseeing the small PA - we're only talking about space for an audience of 80 -120 around this small stage - was on his way back from lunch, and in his absence the guitarist's roadie pushed up the master fader for the PA so the artists could start his set. A few minutes later, the power to the PA was pulled, and the chap responsible for supervising it was taken away by security, who were threatening to call the police (they saw sense and let him back, happily. The artists jumped off the stage and played acoustically in the middle of the crowd, so there's a happy ending in a way). The point of this lengthy story is that the organisers of outdoor events are so concerned for their reputation and to uphold the rules that they often go overboard in adhering to them; they know that the licence won't be granted to them again if they transgress. If those rules mean your peace at home is disturbed, it's more likely the rules that are a large part of the problem, not the event, as such. Finally, I'm also quite suprised that you could hear it in a way - most of these events now use very modern PA, with fancy "line-arrays" which are suprisingly directional and localised, despite the massive sound output. I guess the answer to attending these shows is to wear earplugs - or, better still, listen to them from home - cheaper and no hearing damage!

Alan Yu
July 10th, 2009
7:07 PM
I once went to a pop concert with a friend who said it was so loud couldn't hear the toilet flush for a day. Quite.

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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