Most of my musician patients are in orchestras

If you look carefully at this photo of contrabassoonist Burl Lane, who retired in 2008 after playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 43 years, you will see that he is wearing musicians' ear plugs. Melophobia is a little-known and little-understood neurophysiological condition. It is often wrongly defined as a fear of music, but is, in fact, an aversion to music caused by painful conditions resulting from prolonged exposure to loud sounds. Tinnitus and hyperacusis are the most common of these conditions and the risk to musicians can be greatly reduced by wearing custom designed tuned ear plugs such as those seen in the photo. Hearing damage is most often associated with rock musicians, but in one of the few informed articles about melophpobia Dr. Marsha Johnson clinical director at the Oregon Tinnitus & Hyperacusis Clinic, who has been treating melophobia sufferers for more than a decade, reveals:
Oddly enough, most of my musician patients are in orchestras, philharmonics, or symphony groups—or are piano players. These instruments are often quite loud, and the whole group productions are very loud, and I believe that the practice times needed to acquire great skill on these instruments are longer. Many professionals playing violins, flutes, cellos, and so on begin very early in life, so their exposure time may already have been decades long when they first begin to perform professionally.
Dr. Marsha Johnson talks about the "deep fear and shame" associated with tinnitus and hyperacusis, and for this reason there needs to be more awareness of these conditions within classical music, particularly with the high sound levels associated with currently fashionable composers such as Mahler. There is, fortunately, a greater awareness of the risk to listeners from amplified music and from the massive recent growth of listening to portable audio players using headphones . But despite this greater awareness Dr. Johnson issues this stark warning:
The use of things such as iPods, which are forcing sound right down into the ear canal with the newer, tighter ear buds, is going to produce hearing loss and other auditory issues at far younger ages than we’ve seen in the past. This is going to be an epidemic of great proportions in our world.
Given that most of Dr. Marsha Johnson's musician patients are in orchestras, it is puzzling why so many people in classical music have never even heard of melophobia.

Header photo credit is Anaheim Hearing Centre. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Anonymous said…
I wonder whether there isn't also a psychological fear of music. I once met a French woman who expressed something like this, a fear of the isolating power of music.

In saying this, she must have been acknowledging its power. But feared that she would lose herself if she listened.

There is also a Latin tendency (to immerse oneself in life) versus a German (to etherialise and interiorise everything).
Pliable said…
"I wonder whether there isn't also a psychological fear of music".

Interesting thought David. In fact this post was triggered by chance reading a reference in James Fergusson's Kandahar Cockney to the Kabul's "infamously melophobic" Taliban regime.

That reference to the Taliban's psychological fear of music led to one about the important but overlooked neurophysiological aversion to music.

I have a feeling there should be another post on the psychological fear of music.
Anonymous said…
The Greeks (or some Greek thinkers) had a tremendous psychological fear of music. Plato, Republic, and more. I will try to collect the references. It even made them regulate the number of strings on a harp:
Anonymous said…
Music, or the wrong sort, would unman you or make you a less useful citizen. Plato, Republic. Probably more. So a political fear, but I am sure also a psychological one.
Pliable said…
David, there is a radical re-imagining of surviving musical fragments of ancient Hellenic music that hovers tantalizingly between archaeology and the avant-garde titled Musique de la Gréce Antique on Harmonia Mundi.

The experiment is not totally convincing, but is of significance as it was the debut disc from Gregorio Paniagua directing Atrium Musicae de Madrid. Paniagua went on to to great things with his own Pneuma label -
billoo said…
Is the fear of music the fear of being swept away in an 'oceanic feeling' and losing one's individual identity ("losing oneself", as David says)?

Plato's views on music-as well as art-seem to resonate with some strains of thinking in Islam (see Iris Murdoch's fascinating 'The Fire and the Sun').

best wishes,

Philip Amos said…
As there is 'musicophilia', an Aristotelian would preseme also a 'musicophobia'. And there is, but defined as a dislike of music rather than a hatred of it. There is little literature on this, but in reading what I've come across, I rather suspect that it may be found that musicophobia, whether of certain types of music or of it all, may be a component of synaesthesia.

I've mentioned here before that I'm synaesthetic, and for many years an episode of sheer panic started if Ravel, Debussy,or Satie reached my ears, but no others. And I love the music of those composers. What sort of music Plato liked to listen to, as opposed to that he approved of, we can't really know. In the Republic, he is considering music from a political point of veiw. His approval depended up the effect on man of each of the seven modes. He approved only of two: the Dorian for the man of peace, the Phrygian for the man of war. But that doesn't mean he didn't like others.

The speed with which USSR banned performances of Sibelius' Finlandia after the invasion of 1939 illustrates clearly enough one attitude toward music of totalitarian or dictatorial states. This is not, any more than in the case of the Greeks, melophobia or musicophobia in general. As with Plato, it is fear of the effects of music on other people, the nation invaded, the people ruled. Stalin kept tight control of music, which works by Soviet composers he favoured, which not. So too the Nazis re decadent and/or Jewish composers. But there are Jewish performers in Hitler's record collection. As with Stalin and Plato, this was all about politics.

I'm inclined to think that the only people who would be musicophobes in toto are the tone-deaf. Otherwise, we would have first those who dislike intensely certain types of music. And second, those such as Stalin, Hitler, certain fundamentalist Christian sects, notably under the Pentecostalist umbrella, and the Taliban. What they, like Plato, feared was not itself, but its effect on others.

There is a clue as to the nature of Greek music in that. The Dorian and Phrygian modes are per se warlike or peaceful, of course. What is indicated here is the type of music written in those modes.

I have doubts about the usefulness of the term 'melophobe'. A melophobic musician would be afraid of the pain induced by sound, not hate melody. If the latter, he or she would not be able to tolerate music just played over in the mind.
Tpt said…
All too true, the comments made here about hearing loss and fear of the same in orchestral players. I think some of the problem can be traced to players, like myself, of brass instruments.

However, much of the time we are simply doing what the conductor asks of us. Some conductors (especially the younger ones) seem to never be satisfied with the volume of sound coming from their brass players. My teachers, who came of age during the 50's and 60's, complained of the opposite problem: the conductor asking them to play too quietly.

And of course, this increase in sound makes things harder on the poor wind players sitting all too often right in front of the brass (re: the contrabassoonist in the picture). It's enough to make you think that Stokowski was on to something when he tried to rearrange the orchestra for a better sound. Certainly wouldn't fly in today's climate.

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