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Year : 2003  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 19  |  Page : 51--58

The sound exposure of the audience at a music festival

V Mercier1, D Luy2, BW Hohmann3,  
1 Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (BAG), CH-3003 Bern, Switzerland
2 Service cantonal de l'environnement et de l'énergie (SEVEN), CH - 1066, Epalinges, Switzerland
3 Swiss National Accident Insurance Organisation (Suva), CH-6002 Lucerne, Switzerland

Correspondence Address:
V Mercier
Radiation Protection Division, Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (BAG), CH-3003 Bern


During the Paleo Festival in Nyon, Switzerland, which took place from 24th to 29th July 2001, ten volunteers were equipped each evening with small sound level meters which continuously monitored their sound exposure as they circulated among the various festival events. Sound levels at the mixing console and at the place where people are most heavily exposed (in front of the speakers) were measured simultaneously. In addition, a sample of 601 people from the audience were interviewed over the six days of the festival and asked their opinion of sound level and quality, as well as provide details of where in the arena they preferred to listen to the concerts, whether they used ear plugs, if they had experienced any tinnitus, and if so how long it had persisted. The individual sound exposure during a typical evening was on average 95 dB(A) although 8% of the volunteers were exposed to sound levels higher then 100 dB(A). Only 5% of the audience wore ear plugs throughout the concert while 34% used them occasionally. While some 36% of the people interviewed reported that they had experienced tinnitus after listening to loud music, the majority found both the music quality and the sound level good. The sound level limit of 100 dB(A) at the place where the people are most heavily exposed seems to be a good compromise between the public heath issue, the demands of artists and organisers, and the expectations of the public. However, considering the average sound levels to which the public are exposed during a single evening, it is recommended that ear plugs be used by concert-goers who attend more than one day of the festival.

How to cite this article:
Mercier V, Luy D, Hohmann B W. The sound exposure of the audience at a music festival.Noise Health 2003;5:51-58

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Mercier V, Luy D, Hohmann B W. The sound exposure of the audience at a music festival. Noise Health [serial online] 2003 [cited 2020 Sep 19 ];5:51-58
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Concern has been expressed in recent years that excessive sound levels during leisure time activities, in particular those associated with rock and pop music, may cause widespread hearing damage. There are now many studies which have reported the impact of listening to music on the hearing of teenagers and young people. Excessive exposure to loud music has been associated with increased hearing loss and/or tinnitus by several researchers (Babisch et al 1988, Mercier et al 1998, Meyer-Bisch 1996, Fearn 1976, Struwe et al 1996 and Ising et al 1997). Mazelova et al (2001) reported that even a single four-hour exposure to 94 dB amplified­music induces marked changes in the outer hair cells and can result in temporary or even permanent changes to the auditory system. All of these findings received further support in a recent review by Maassen et al (2001) who estimated, according to ISO 1999, that after ten years exposure to music played on personal cassette players (PCPs) and through attending discotheques and concerts, about 10% of young people will suffer irreversible noise-induced hearing loss in both ears of at least 10 dB at 3 kHz. However the issue is still controversial. Neither Hoffman et al (1997), Axelsson (1996), Passchier-Vermeer (1999), Meecham and Hume (2001), nor Mercier and Hohmann (2002) found any clear association between hearing impairment and sound exposures in discotheques, nightclubs, or at pop and rock concerts. Despite this lack of clear scientific evidence, Switzerland, Italy, Austria and France have all introduced sound level limits for discotheques and pop concerts. In Germany an expert group (Zenner et al 1999) has also proposed (DIN Standard 19905/5) a limit to the permissible sound level in discotheques.

In Switzerland, a regulation implying sound level limits of 100 dB(A) at concerts or festivals and 93 dB(A) in discotheques came into force in 1996. Despite this regulation, the actual sound exposures (sound dose) of the public during a typical concert or festival, which can last several days, are not known. As listening to highly­amplified music is one of the most important leisure activities of young people and carries a high potential risk of injury to the auditory system, it is important to obtain measurements of the actual sound exposure situation. The aim of this study was therefore to address the following questions:

• What is the average "sound dose" received by those attending a typical music festival ?

• How does the public judge sound level and its quality during a music festival where the equivalent sound level (L eq ) is limited to 100 dB(A) ?

• Is it possible to develop a general correction factor between the locations where the public is most heavily exposed and the mixing console, where the sound level is usually measured?


Design of the Study

In 2001 the " Festival Paleo", held in the open at Nyon in Switzerland, attracted a total of 198 000 visitors over the six days of the festival. The visitors had the choice, each evening, of listening to different concerts held on four separate stages. Three of the stages were located inside tents with capacities of 8000, 3000 and 2000 listeners respectively. The fourth and largest stage was located in the open where 25000 people could enjoy the concerts from the sloping field that faced the stage. During the festival ten volunteers circulated among the various festival events each evening. Each volunteer was equipped with a small sound level meter which continuously monitored his or her sound exposure. They behaved exactly like any other visitor, listening to the concerts and programmes of their choice. The volunteers were also each given ear plugs of the type "Ultrafit" and a questionnaire to complete.

The official mandatory sound level measurements during the concerts were made at the mixing console. In addition the opinions of a large sample of the concert-goers were obtained from a survey undertaken during the festival.

The group of volunteers tested

Thirty-three volunteers comprising 17 women and 16 men constituted the group. Their ages ranged from 17 to 50 with an average age of 28. The group reflected the age distribution of the festival attendance. Eleven of the women and ten of the men attended only one evening of the festival. Three women and three men each attended two evenings while two of the women and one of the men spent three evenings at the festival. Finally, one woman and two men were present on all six evenings of the festival.

The questionnaire

As part of the protocol a questionnaire had to be answered by each volunteer while the evening progressed. Besides providing general information such as name, age, date, and dosimeter number, each volunteer was asked to provide details of the particular concerts listened to and on which stage and when. In addition, the following information was sought for each concert:

- location of the volunteer while listening and estimated distance to the stage

- whether or not ear plugs were worn

- their appreciation of the sound level: too low, just right or too loud

- their appreciation of sound quality: good, so-so or bad

The audience survey

Every evening around one hundred visitors, giving a total of 601 over the week, were each interviewed for 10 minutes. They were asked to judge the sound level and quality and provide details of where they liked to listen to the concerts, if they used ear plugs, if they had experienced any post-exposure tinnitus and , if so, how long it had persisted.

Sound level measurements during the concerts

The sound levels during the concerts were measured by the festival organisers simultaneously at each of the four concert stages using Bruel&Kjaer 4436 sound level meters to provide the L eq per minute and L eq during each concert.

The official controlling organisation for the Canton (SEVEN) measured sound levels at the largest of the four stages (capacity 25,000) at the same time. These measurements were made at the place where SEVEN estimated people would be most heavily exposed ( i.e. in front of the speakers). They used Larson-Davis (LD) 706 and Rion type NL-15 sound level meters which measured L eq and the L max "Fast" for each concert.

Measurements of individual sound level exposures

Sound level exposure of the volunteers was measured with Larson-Davis LD 705 and 805 dosimeters. The equivalent sound levels L eq in dB(A), L max "Fast" in dB(A), and Peak in dB(C) were registered every minute. The microphones were fitted to the shoulders of the volunteers to minimise interference with the sound field and were protected by a polyurethane windshield which did not affect the measurements. The software used for the evaluation was LD705win and Microsoft Excel.


Music sound levels at different locations

Measurements were made simultaneously at the mixing console, directly in front of the speakers, and at shoulder level among the participating volunteers. As can be seen from [Figure 1], the sound levels experienced by the volunteers do not continue to increase the nearer they are to the speakers, which are located close to the stage. It had been assumed that the place where people are most severely exposed was directly in front of the speakers. For practical reasons, the sound level control is managed at the mixing console to allow for a fast response when needed. For the concerts shown in [Figure 1] the distance from the stage to the mixing console was around 50m.

The sound levels at the noisiest location and at the mixing console can be very different from one concert to another. A correction factor can be established as shown in [Figure 2]. This factor is the difference between the sound level measured at the loudest point to which the public have access and the sound level measured at the mixing console. The sound level during nine different concerts on the same stage were measured and compared. The differences between these two measuring points varied from 13.3 dB to 5.3 dB with an average difference of 8 dB +/- 2.3 dB. The difference depends on the spectrum of frequencies in the music and is greater for those styles of music where the bass is less important.

Individual sound exposure during the festival

Most concerts lasted between one and two hours and there were at least three concerts held on each of the four music stages. A typical sound level profile is shown in [Figure 3].

Each of the volunteers kept details of all concerts they listened to including where and when they did their listening. The total number of these protocols covered 296 concerts. The equivalent sound level (L eq ) measured over the whole duration of these 296 concerts varied from 73 to 109.4 dB(A), the average being 95 dB(A). Thirteen percent of the values were over 100 dB(A). The volunteers spent between 4 and 12 hours per day at the festival. On average those who attended more than one evening at the festival spent less time there each evening than those volunteers who went to the festival just once (eight hours compared to more than nine hours). The individual sound exposures per evening varied between 87.3 and 103.8 dB(A) with an average exposure of 95.1 +/- 3.1 dB(A). Ten volunteers per evening over the six days of the festival provided 60 person-evenings of data overall.

Eight percent of the volunteers' exposure exceeded 100 dB(A). By analogy to the sound exposure permitted at the workplace we calculated the sound exposure over an 8 hour period (one working day) and over a 40 hour period (the working week). The L eq over 8 hours

varied between 87.3 and 103.6 dB(A), with an average of 95.5 +/- 3.4 dB(A) while the L eq calculated over 40 hours was 7 dB(A) less than this.

The evaluation of sound level and sound quality

The thirty-three volunteers (ten per evening, for six evenings, with some volunteering for more than one evening) who were fitted with equipment to measure the noise levels to which they were exposed, were also asked to evaluate the different concerts they listened to for sound level and quality. Seventy percent of the volunteers considered the sound level was "good" while 25% thought it "too loud". The opinions were independent of the sex of the volunteers. When the average sound level during a concert reached 100 dB(A) the proportion of volunteers who considered the sound level too loud rose to 40% while 55% still judged the level as just right and 5% continue to think it too low.

Concerning sound quality, again around 70% of the volunteers were of the opinion that the sound quality was good. However some 25% judged the quality of the sound just "so-so" while 4% considered it bad.

The audience survey showed that, taken all round, the sound level at the concerts satisfied 80% of the Paleo Festival visitors. Only 15 % found the sound too loud. More women judged the sound level too loud than did men. Around 90 % of the audience interviewed found the sound quality good. This opinion varied from 85% to 92 % depending on the stage in question.

Use of ear plugs

The volunteers made use of the ear plugs in only 14% of the 296 concerts attended. The results of the audience survey showed that 58 % of the festival visitors never used ear plugs at any event while 34% said they used them sometimes. Only 5% claimed to have used ear plugs at nearly all concerts while 3% always used them when close to speakers.

Under Swiss legislation ear plugs should be made available to all concert-goers. This was the case at the Paleo Festival. However the ear plugs were located at inconvenient places which could be easily overlooked. Thirty-five percent of our audience sample of 601 had not seen them.


Thirty-six percent of the 601 people questioned in the survey indicated that they had experienced post exposure tinnitus. For 86% of them the tinnitus disappeared within 24 hours although in the case of two people the tinnitus had become permanent.


Despite the tremendous efforts of the festival organisers and the official controlling organisation, the sound level limit of 100 dB(A) was not observed over the whole area nor over the whole duration of the festival. The comparison of the sound levels measured simultaneously at the mixing console and at the place assumed to be most heavily exposed (in front of the speakers) revealed a problem with the choice of measuring point. The correction factor (the difference between the measured sound level at the mixing console and that at the most heavily exposed point) is dependent on many different parameters. It varies as a function of the meteorological conditions, local topography, the number of visitors, and is particularly dependent on the spectrum of the music and the proportions of high and low frequency sounds. Consequently, the correction factor has to be determined before each concert. The sound level exposure of the volunteers was highly dependent on their behaviour and their listening pattern in the festival arena. Individual exposures per evening varied between 87 and 104 dB(A) with the average exposure being 95 dB(A). This average value corresponds to the weekly dose limit in the workplace.

From the point of view of occupational health, such exposure could be tolerated for just one evening per week, providing that for the rest of the week the visitors to the festival avoided exposing themselves to high sound levels. However festival visitors normally attend more than just once per week and often for three or more evenings. Consequently their exposure increases and in tandem, the risk of noise induced hearing loss. Where the use of ear plugs would reduce exposure by at least 10 to 15 dB, unfortunately the results of the audience survey showed that only 5 % of the visitors use ear plugs regularly. While around 35 % occasionally use ear plugs , the majority (58%) never use them. The survey also showed that 36 % of the visitors suffered post-exposure tinnitus. This proportion is much lower than that observed in previous studies (Mercier et al 1998, Mercier and Hohmann 2002) where around 65% to 70% of the young people questioned had experienced tinnitus. This difference may be due to the fact that at the Paleo Festival the average age of the visitors was much higher (28 years) than in the earlier studies (17-18 years). Generally younger people are exposed more often and to higher sound levels than older people. Tinnitus, when it becomes permanent, is a serious handicap for the affected person. In this study 1% of the people who experienced post-exposure tinnitus developed permanent tinnitus. We have estimated that as many as 750 of the 200 000 visitors to the Paleo Festival will become permanently affected by music-induced tinnitus. Only 15% to 25% of the sample of participants questioned judged the music to be too loud. In some earlier studies (Mercier et Hohmann (2002) and Aregger and Zambelli (2002)) up to 50% of the young people interviewed thought the sound levels at the concerts or discotheques too loud. This difference might be due to a number of factors. In the former study we had questioned the young people while at school and not during a concert. In the latter study Aregger and Zambelli measured the sound levels at the places where the people were being interviewed and noticed that the sound levels were at or above 100 dB(A). In this present survey people were questioned in the festival arena but not during the concerts so consequently the sound levels at these locations during this time were much less than 100 dB(A). The evaluation of sound level in our audience survey was related to the entire duration of their stay at the festival. Furthermore, as any judgement on the loudness of music is highly subjective, it depends also on the general ambience and atmosphere at the event which in the case of the Paleo Festival is particularly agreeable.


The average visitor to the Paleo Festival is exposed in one evening to a noise dose equivalent with the maximum permitted in the workplace over a period of one week. In our society, where the population is exposed daily to occupational, residential and leisure noise, it is important to focus on prevention and reduce exposure not only at the workplace, but also during leisure time. As the greatest exposure to noise during leisure activity arises while listening to music, young people should be well informed about the risk to their hearing and be strongly advised to modify their listening habits. This is especially the case for those already exhibiting noise induced hearing loss, for those complaining of tinnitus and for those who frequently suffered otitis during childhood. Furthermore, maximum sound levels should be strictly limited at concerts employing electronically amplified music and at discotheques. In addition, it would be of value to begin to harmonise sound level limits internationally.


We extend our thanks to the organisers of the Paleo Festival Nyon for their collaboration and to the volunteers who wore the dosimeters during their evenings at the festival and willingly completed our extensive questionnaires while, we hope, still managing to enjoy the music.[15]


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