Age-Related Hearing Loss and Organs
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Age-Related Hearing Loss and Organs

by Colin Pykett

Posted: 1 June 2008
Last modified: 8 February 2011
Copyright © C E Pykett



"It is not unreasonable to expect that those whose profession involves making judgements on the tonal qualities of organs must have hearing which is beyond reproach. Otherwise they are in the same position as an art critic with imperfect vision"



Aural Health Recommendation :
If you have any doubts about your hearing you should consult a doctor.  Nothing in this article should be taken to imply otherwise.


Abstract. Age-related hearing loss eventually affects most of us, including those who think they are immune. Many people do not so much as think about the possibility that they might have hearing defects, and others who do seem in denial about them. It is probable that there are organs which have shortcomings related to defective hearing on the part of the builders and voicers who made them. Even when this is not so, some players or listeners might still find them unsatisfactory because of their own defective hearing. Moreover, an organ expert with imperfect hearing who criticises the tonal quality of organs is the musical equivalent of an art critic with flawed vision.

It is shown that easily measurable hearing loss occurs frequently by the time people have reached their 40's and certainly once they are into their 50's and beyond. Those who make a living at music can be more badly affected than the population at large. Uniquely, some mp3 sound files have been included in this article which demonstrate how the same organ might sound to people ranging in age from 20 to 80.

The article contemplates the curious phenomenon that, while glasses are acceptable and widely used to correct defective vision, hearing aids seem to imply to many people that their wearers are past it. Until this societal mind set changes it is unlikely the problems discussed here will recede.



(click on the section heading to access it)




Age-Related Hearing Loss - facts and figures


Noise-Induced Hearing Loss


A demonstration of Age-Related Hearing Loss


Implications for organists


Implications for organ builders


Examples of the impact of Age-Related Hearing Loss


Concluding Remarks


Notes and References


Appendix 1 - a few words about decibels


It is usually obvious when our eyesight deteriorates. Quite small problems of one sort or another soon become noticeable when our ability is degraded to read printed material, to see road signs while driving at night or to sit at a computer without getting a headache. Whether or not this means we then visit an optician is as much to do with a vanity-related fear of needing glasses as anything else for some.

Things are quite different with hearing, which can deteriorate considerably before we have the slightest inkling that things were not what they used to be. It is often because others draw our attention to it that we suddenly realise that we cannot hear as well as we once did. Then it is commonly the case that we hold everything and anyone around us at fault before finally deciding to leave a state of denial and accept that maybe the time has finally come to do something about it.

Yet by the time we are into our 40's many if not most of us will have lost a distinct and easily measurable amount of our hearing abilities compared to when we were younger - in our 20's and earlier - and the effects are progressive thereafter. This age related hearing loss is called presbycusis (or presbyacusis) in the trade, the aural analogue of presbyopia in which our eyesight degrades with advancing years. Often, the symptoms of both will arise at about the same time in middle life. But it is a curious human trait that, while we will usually admit quite readily that our eyes might not be what they were, there is often a marked reluctance to do the same for our hearing even when the symptoms have become obvious. 

This societal phenomenon results in some in middle age and beyond insisting there is nothing wrong with their hearing despite the fact they need the TV turned up so loud that it drives everybody else to distraction, or blaming others for speaking indistinctly when they do nothing of the sort, or having no idea what turn the conversation has taken in a noisy restaurant. Others seem to weave a web of unreality around themselves so they can remain in denial about their inadequate hearing - sometimes we meet people who say things like "the audiologist was astonished at the results for someone of my age". This verbatim quote came from an elderly organ voicer, who went on to tell me (and his audiologist apparently) that his calling had actually enhanced the performance of his hearing rather than it deteriorating with age. Of course, it might have been true in his case though the statistics are weighted against it. At least he had consulted an audiologist though, which is rare in itself.

In the UK one reason why consultations with audiologists are far too rare is because of the inexcusable lack of investment in diagnosing and treating hearing problems. An elderly lady of my acquaintance, one of those who insists she is not hard of hearing, continues to maintain this position following a visit to her general practitioner who "tested" it. The test consisted of him standing behind her and speaking with increasing volume until she was finally able to hear what he was saying. He then declared her hearing perfect. Of course, this was to avoid him getting into trouble by referring her for a proper hearing assessment by the NHS. He also told her that, had she needed hearing aids, it would take months to see a specialist and years to then get the aids themselves - which would be far from top of the range ones. In situations like this one must persist until one is referred to an ENT (ear, nose and throat) consultant (not merely an audiologist) for a thorough examination, not just of one's hearing, but of the wider implications of the symptoms one is experiencing. Sometimes they are indicative of serious illnesses.

However, while one is waiting for a proper examination, an audiologist can be consulted independently of your GP. What seems to be little known in the UK is that free hearing tests carried out by professional audiologists are widely available in many High Street outlets, unlike sight tests which one usually has to pay for. The test is quick and is often done with an audiometer controlled by a laptop computer to which headphones are connected (see picture below). In view of this, I emphatically do not recommend DIY hearing checks of the sort one can do by downloading a bit of software into your PC from the Internet. They are not very accurate in any case because it is impossible to calibrate the results without the most elaborate equipment. However the really important aspect - getting a professional interpretation of the audiograms and subsequent advice - is missing.


Typical audiometer controlled by a laptop PC

What has all this to do with music in general and organ building in particular? Not surprisingly, the answer is that it matters a great deal. Narrowing the discussion somewhat, let us now focus on some specific issues. I once employed a piano tuner - one time only I might add - whose efforts at the top end of the keyboard were a travesty. The instrument was in a worse state when he left than before he arrived. He was in his sixties. I have also met more than one elderly organist who has instructed the tuner to "bring up the mixtures". Others of a similar age have complained that "the top octave of the Fifteenth is inaudible" when they have come to play the various organs in my studio.  Recently (2011) a prominent consulting organ builder admitted that he could no longer hear beyond top A on a Fifteenth (about 7 kHz) [5], and in my experience such open-ness is rare in that profession.

It is a salutary experience to perform a rough check on one's hearing by employing the services of the younger members of the family. Small children and those into their teens are excellent and unbiased auditors whom one can utilise to establish a hearing reference. When they are around, try asking them whether they can hear the top notes of the Fifteenth on your house organ, be it piped or digital. If they look at you incredulously, sometimes covering their ears, you will be able to establish roughly the frequency at which your hearing is falling off! Also they can often hear things that you had no idea existed, such as the cat scarer in next door's garden or the background noise on your cherished hi-fi system.

There are two issues which deserve further consideration. The first is to put some numbers into this hitherto qualitative discussion. The second is then to ask whether the opinions bandied about relating to organs, which often vary considerably, might have something to do with the hearing of those who play or listen to them and - just as important - those who build them.


Age Related Hearing Loss - facts and figures

The curves in Figure 1 below show how we progressively lose the ability to hear the higher frequencies as we age. The data show the average sensitivity of the human ear plotted against frequency at different ages. Data for men and women are shown separately. I have also placed an additional scale at the bottom of the diagram showing how frequency, and hence hearing loss, relates to organ stops of various pitches.




Figure 1. Illustrating presbycusis - age related hearing loss. M : men, W : women

 (after Prof L Beranek)

The sensitivity measurement on the vertical axis can be thought of as the amplitude of a pure tone (sine wave) at a given frequency which, when applied to headphones, just results in the perception of a sound at that frequency. This is what the equipment used by an audiologist does when your hearing is tested. Because there is a value of frequency at which the ear is most sensitive, represented by the dip in the curves, it can be seen that the sensitivity of the ear decreases as the frequency moves either higher or lower away from that value. In other words, the voltage applied to the headphones has to be progressively increased in order for there to be a perception of sound as the frequency moves towards the extremes of the audible range in either direction. This is why the numbers on the vertical axis, which in effect measure the voltage, increase in an upwards direction. The numbers are expressed in decibels for reasons explained in Appendix 1.

The lowest curve in Figure 1, labelled "20", is an average plot of the performance of a healthy ear of around that age. As stated above, the lower the value on the decibel (dB) axis, the more sensitive the hearing. Thus the peak sensitivity is at a frequency around 3 kHz, which corresponds roughly to the fundamental frequency (related to pitch) of the top F# pipe on a 4 foot organ stop as shown in the diagram.

As we get older, two main changes occur. The first is that we lose sensitivity to sounds at all frequencies - this is represented by the bodily upwards shift of the curves corresponding to increasing age. The second change is that, superimposed on the first, we also lose additional sensitivity at the higher frequencies - this is shown by the way the curves swoop upwards progressively more steeply towards the right hand side. For example, at age 40 men have already lost about 15 dB sensitivity at 8 kHz compared to what they had when they were 20. This means the voltage applied to the headphones in an audiology test will need to be about 5.5 times larger at this frequency than when they were 20 before they can hear anything. Therefore, even at this relatively young age, hearing loss is significant and easily measurable on average.

By the time men are 60 the difference is about 45 dB (the voltage now needs to be nearly 200 times larger than at age 20, a considerable amount). By the time they are 80 the difference is about 84 dB (nearly 16,000 times larger!). The curves for women show that on the whole they fare somewhat better, particularly between the ages of 60 and 80.

A feature of high frequency deafness for either gender is that it becomes total beyond a certain cut-off frequency - no matter how loud the sound beyond that point, we cannot hear it at all. The figure just mentioned for the 80 year old man is pretty much at or beyond this threshold of total deafness - bombarding the ear with a sound of the implied intensity at 8 kHz is rather pointless. This is why the voicer's remark quoted earlier - that his calling had actually enhanced the performance of his hearing rather than it deteriorating with age - probably has to be regarded as wishful thinking. If you cannot hear a certain frequency then you cannot hear it, regardless of what your occupation might be.

In the discussion above a frequency of 8 kHz was chosen for several reasons. One is that the maximum frequency used in hearing tests is sometimes limited to this figure, though often it might be lower. The second is that it has musical significance because it is the approximate fundamental frequency of the tiny pipe which speaks the top note of a 2 foot stop on a five octave organ keyboard, as shown in Figure 1. Pipes are seldom made any smaller than this for practical reasons even in higher pitched stops - in these cases the top few notes therefore break back to the octave below. A third reason relates to human speech because many consonant and sibilant sounds have significant energy extending nearly to this frequency, as shown by the region labelled "Speech Range" in Figure 1. Therefore if you cannot easily hear sounds at 4 - 6 kHz and above, you will probably not be able to discern consonants as easily as a younger person could. Consonants are in effect the milestones of speech which separate the vowels from each other, and if you cannot hear them properly the vowels tend to merge. In that circumstance speech becomes indistinct, muffled and more difficult to 'catch'.

A practical consequence of all this is that if you need the sound turned up more loudly than those with better hearing before you can follow the dialogue on TV programmes, it is virtually certain you will also have more difficulty hearing the top notes of an organ than they do. The converse also applies - if you can no longer hear the top notes of a Fifteenth, say, you will probably have difficulty following speech in some situations. The onset of these symptoms does not necessarily mean you will not be able to hear the top notes of the organ at all, rather they might sound less loud than you would like or expect. However the effects are more often than not progressive, thus they get worse with time. Therefore, before blaming the organ and summoning the organ builder, maybe reflect on whether your hearing is not quite what it was.

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Professional musicians and musical instrument technicians are potentially more at risk from another form of hearing degradation than members of the general population because of the high sound levels many of them are subjected to during the course of their work. This has been recognised for some time and woodwind players, for example, sometimes wear ear defenders to protect them from the sounds of brass instruments blasting away behind them in the orchestra.

Pipe organ voicers and tuners are similarly at risk, particularly when called on to spend hours or days on end voicing and regulating loud reeds or mixtures. The various symptoms are called noise induced hearing loss, and one effect can be an upward shift in the threshold of hearing which accelerates that due to normal ageing. Another is tinnitus, ringing in the ears, which can be particularly distressing for a musician or organ builder. Although not all the effects are permanent, some of them can be.

A demonstration of Age Related Hearing Loss

The four short mp3 sound samples of an organ piece below are an attempt to demonstrate the progressive effects of age related hearing loss so that the foregoing remarks can perhaps be related to real life more easily. The samples correspond to average male hearing at ages 20, 40, 60 and 80 years, based on the graphical data shown earlier in Figure 1.

The file entitled "age 20" represents the more or less perfect hearing which someone of that age or younger would normally enjoy. It is a short extract from the Voluntary in D minor by Maurice Greene played on a modern single manual chamber pipe organ in a medium sized room, which has been simulated digitally by my Prog Organ virtual pipe organ system (click on the Prog Organ button at the top if this page if you want more information about it). The organ has five stops at 8, 4, 2, 1 1/3 and 1 foot pitches, and all of them were used in this recording though one or two were put in towards the end of the clip as you will hear. I made the recording myself in this way to avoid copyright problems, and the blemishes have been allowed to remain as watermarks to subsequently identify it as mine! The recording was made with no additional ambience, and in a manner corresponding to the close-miking which would have been used if microphones had been placed close to the pipes of the actual pipe organ. Therefore you should play it quite loudly and be prepared for the rather fierce and spiky sound of this little instrument. However, as always with new examples of digitally recorded music, have the volume set low initially to protect not only your ears but your sound system as well.  Then, having chosen a suitable volume, do not adjust it when listening to the subsequent files for the first time.

The sound sample entitled "age 40" is exactly the same extract as that above but now processed to represent the sound which an average male around age 40 might perceive. Thus a frequency-dependent attenuation was applied to the data as suggested by Figure 1 when comparing the curves for males at ages 20 and 40.

The "age 60" and "age 80" sample files were produced in the same way, by processing the original "age 20" file in each case but with the progressive hearing deterioration suggested by the corresponding data in Figure 1.

It should be noted that the effects you perceive when listening to these samples will only have meaning if your hearing is good to start with (corresponding to the age 20 data in Figure 1). In other words you should be in the fortunate position of still being young. Either that or your hearing should have been professionally corrected to at least 8 kHz and preferably beyond by means of good digital hearing aids. Otherwise, the way you perceive the samples will not be easy to predict because your existing hearing defects will be added to those deliberately imposed on the sound files themselves.

As a rough guide of what to expect, I played these sound files to some people with excellent hearing but with varying experience of (and liking for!) organ music. A high quality audio setup was used, with loudspeakers going way beyond even the best human hearing at the top end. The consensus was that the "age 20" file had considerable presence and impact when auditioned at a realistic level. After listening to the other files, all these young auditors were keen to return to the "age 20" one. An older person of 61 - an organist - expressed a similar preference, even though his hearing was normally impaired by age. He had had it tested a few months earlier, the audiograms showing that his hearing threshold fell away rapidly above 3 kHz, as the relevant curve in Figure 1 suggests it would for a man of his age. Initially he was rather shocked by the pronounced differences he perceived between the four examples whereas the younger listeners did not express such surprise, indeed one of them suggested that the mellower effect of the "age 40" files and beyond would suit the character and temperament of an older person! Therefore, although it is difficult to draw conclusions from such a limited and subjective test, it might be the case that an existing hearing impairment exaggerates the variations perceived because it is overlaid on the actual differences between the files. This is why I said above that you should preferably have young or well-corrected ears when listening to the examples.

It goes without saying that your sound system should be very good when listening to these samples, with loudspeakers of a quality comparable to audiophile headphones such as the Sennheiser HD 650. Or use these or similar quality headphones instead. The small speakers normally supplied with PC's will be useless and will make the exercise a waste of time.


Here are the examples of age-related hearing loss at different ages referred to above (all are short mp3 audio files) :

Age 20

Age 40

Age 60

Age 80

Provided you did not adjust the volume between the samples, a factor which will probably strike you is not only the progressive high frequency loss which is an inevitable companion to increasing age, but the considerable loss in overall loudness as well. Loudness is a complicated subjective phenomenon which depends not only on the strength of the acoustic signal but on its frequency distribution together with other factors, and it cannot be discussed here [4]. Nevertheless these sound samples do demonstrate why older people without hearing correction need the TV turned up so loud, and why you often need to shout at them! If you are surprised having listened to them, it might be useful to reflect on issues such as how an older or younger person could perceive the sound of an organ which you regard as satisfactory, and how much of our hearing ability we lose over the years while scarcely noticing it.  These issues have relevance in view of the fact that a good proportion of those who build, advise on, play or just listen to organs are drawn from the ranks of the gerontocracy.


Implications for organists


There are two main implications of age related hearing loss for organists and the listeners in their audience. The first concerns they way they perceive the regulation of an organ, that process used to adjust the acoustic power across a rank of pipes so that it sounds as the voicer wishes it to sound. For example, the treble pipes should not drown the sounds of those nearer to the middle of the keyboard, yet neither should they be too weak. This is particularly important for high pitched stops such as mixtures, which can tend to scream in the treble unless carefully regulated. Another aspect of regulation concerns the adjustment of the relative powers of the various stops so that, for example, the mixtures and the mutations on the great organ lie in proper relation to each other and to the lower pitched ranks. If a listener or player suffers from age related hearing loss, a Mixture or a Fifteenth might sound too weak in the top octave or so, whereas a younger one could find it satisfactory. Conversely, one which an older listener finds satisfactory might be pronounced too strident and edgy in the treble by a younger one.

The second implication of age-impaired hearing concerns tone quality or timbre, which is strongly influenced by the relative proportions of harmonics in the sounds. A reed pipe at a relatively low pitch, such as that of an 8 foot stop sounding treble C, will often have strong harmonics beyond the 20th which means it emits significant acoustic power at frequencies up to or beyond 10 kHz. This lies far beyond the figure of 8 kHz we adopted in the discussion above. A young person will have no difficulty hearing these high frequencies whereas someone in their mid-60's, for example, will quite possibly not hear them at all. The subjective tone quality experienced by these two listeners or players would therefore be different in this situation - to the older person the stop could well sound characterless or too smooth in the higher reaches of the keyboard.

Implications for organ builders

It is also important to consider the effects of hearing loss on an organ builder, and particularly a voicer. On average voicers are obviously as prone to the effects of age related hearing loss as anyone else, thus by the time they are into their late 50's and early 60's statistics such as those plotted graphically in Figure 1 show that their hearing will have degraded significantly. On top of this will be the potential for additional damage caused by noise induced hearing loss as already mentioned, implying that the hearing of at least some of them may be worse than that of members of the general population of a similar age.

In the previous section the effects of hearing loss on organists and listeners were discussed by relating it to the regulation and tonal characteristics of the organ being played. Now we have to consider the effect that degraded hearing might have on voicers, whose job it is to set up those characteristics in the first place. Taking regulation first, most voicers will have learned their art as an apprentice with young ears. As a young person in their teens, he or she will usually have been able to hear frequencies up to 16 kHz or beyond with no difficulty. This is around the second harmonic of the top note of a Fifteenth stop, and to such a youngster it would therefore sound more lively in timbre than for older persons, those in middle age or beyond. Assuming they could hear it at all, the latter would hear the sound emitted by this pipe merely as a pure tone (a sine wave) at the fundamental frequency with no harmonic structure, an emasculated musical sound devoid of character. The hearing of our young voicer will gradually degrade to this level and beyond with increasing age.

Eventually it is quite possible that the voicer would cease to be able to hear such a pipe. However he might continue to voice and regulate it "blind" using the skills and practices developed over his career. But as his hearing at high frequencies continued to deteriorate the problem would affect more and more of the pipes at the top end of the compass of various stops, resulting in a degraded ability to regulate them properly in terms of the acoustic power they emit. This would affect the blend of the instrument towards the top of the keyboard, or the high pitched stops of the organ might sound unpleasantly edgy and strident to a younger person, particularly in the treble.

At quite an early stage in the ageing process, by mid-career, a voicer's aural judgement of the timbre of pipes much lower in the keyboard will have probably changed also. Taking the example considered earlier, he would hear an 8 foot reed stop sounding treble C differently to a younger person because he would often be unable to hear the highest harmonics in the sound, which commonly extend to 8 kHz or beyond. Therefore he might take steps to increase the brightness or loudness of the tone to an extent which the younger person could find objectionable.

Therefore the sound samples discussed earlier are just as relevant to the voicer's situation as they are to the player and the listener. It stretches credulity to accept that the large changes in hearing which occur during a working lifetime, illustrated by the curves in Figure 1 and by these examples, will have no effect at all on the sound of the instruments an organ building firm turns out as key members of their small and specialist workforce age. This could only be prevented by regular monitoring of their hearing, with corrective action taken as necessary.

As well as regulation and the timbre of the pipes, there is a third implication for organ builders of high frequency deafness, and this concerns tuning. If a tuner cannot hear the top notes of an organ, then it is likely he will not be able to tune them properly by ear. Although he will try to tune by listening for the beats between pairs of pipes sounding simultaneously, which exist at very low frequencies compared to the frequencies of the pipes themselves, beats have no independent existence. There is no energy in the air at a beat frequency and it is a myth, albeit a regrettably popular one, to believe otherwise [3]. It is true that low level beats can form within the auditory system itself owing to small nonlinearities of the hearing mechanism when the generating frequencies are both loud and separately audible. However when the generating frequencies themselves are not audible owing to presbycusis, it is questionable whether the beats will then be formed within the ear.

Fortunately we need take the discussion on tuning no further in view of the widespread use of electronic tuning aids, which enable tuners to continue to tune pipes which they can no longer hear. Tuning is therefore not an insurmountable problem even for those with advanced hearing loss. 

Examples of the impact of Age-Related Hearing Loss

The tonal quality of organs is frequently and sometimes hotly debated, and it must surely be the case that some of the issues involve genuine differences in the hearing abilities of some of those who participate in the discussions. However it is difficult to identify examples where such differences can definitely be pinpointed as relevant. There are several reasons for this, one being that the controversies seldom or never rise above a qualitative plane in which measurements, objectivity and numbers play no part.

Another reason is that many of the participants in the discussions are probably blithely unaware of the importance that the state of their hearing plays in the positions they adopt, and only a minority will have visited an audiologist. Of those that have, they may have decided that to advertise their hearing defects by wearing hearing aids would not be the best thing to do for someone who makes a living at some aspect of music. The fact that top quality hearing aids cost as much as a small car is also not without relevance. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to expect that those whose profession involves making judgements on the tonal qualities of organs must have hearing which is beyond reproach. Otherwise they are in the same, hopefully hypothetical, position as an art critic with uncorrected vision defects.

However one or two examples do exist where one can legitimately enquire as to whether failing hearing played a role. For example, in the mid-twentieth century Sumner [1] reported that Sybrand Zachariassen, head of the Danish firm of Marcussen, "voiced all his stops rather fiercely, since he believed that in time the tone would lose its edge and the whole instrument would coalesce as a unity. For a time slats of absorbing material, to be removed later, were placed inside the wooden cases" [2]. Was this merely an example of an organ builder who had observed how the tone of his instruments seemed to become less aggressive with time as the pipes became choked with dust? Or is it perhaps the case that the deterioration of his hearing over his career led him to take the steps described by Sumner? Whatever the reason, it is an interesting story.




The organ at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, Marcussen, 1996

Interestingly, the organ in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall (see above) which has been heavily censured by a number of players and experts is also by Marcussen. One of the criticisms - apart from grumbles that the contract should have gone to a British builder - is a lack of power. Maybe somebody should institute a search for those sound-absorbing slats and remove them forthwith!


Concluding Remarks


They never would hear,

But turn the deaf ear,

As a matter they had no concern in.


Jonathan Swift


An attempt has been made to demonstrate how our hearing deteriorates with age (presbycusis), illustrating the unassailable fact of everyday life that older people do tend to lose their hearing. Because there is no evidence that this does not affect organists and organ builders, indeed the latter might suffer more pronounced effects than the general population, it is therefore reasonable to ask at least two questions. The first is whether the opinions of those who pontificate on organs, particularly eminent organists and organ advisers into or beyond middle age, might be coloured by their own hearing defects. The second is whether organ builders turn out instruments whose tonal characters are influenced similarly. 

If the answer to either is in the affirmative, it begs the additional question of whether the individuals involved are actually aware of the state of their hearing. If they are not, that situation is nevertheless understandable for societal reasons. If they are so aware yet they have done nothing about it, the same still applies. For it is a simple fact that we are much more likely to wear glasses to correct defective eyesight than aids to correct our hearing, yet both presbyopia and presbycusis reach an easily measurable level at same age on average - that age is middle age, meaning mid-career for a voicer or organ adviser. Although some people might avoid visiting an optician in case they are prescribed glasses, many seem to regard them as a desirable fashion accessory, which is all to the good of course. The same can scarcely be said for hearing aids. To confirm this one only has to observe the glut of advertisements for glasses aimed at young people on prime time TV, and compare them with the occasional appearance of those for hearing aids during the day when only the oldies are at home. Hearing aids seem to imply their wearer is past it, whereas glasses are accepted as meaning nothing of the sort.

There are many implications of this unfortunate dichotomy relating to two of our principal senses. One is the fact that many people simply cannot afford the top quality digital hearing aids necessary for a professional musician or musical instrument technician, which can cost as much as a car. But if they were purchased as frequently as spectacles, their prices would probably come down as manufacturers were driven into more effective competition. The aids provided by the NHS, if one succeeds in getting them, are not in this league of excellence at all. Until this situation changes the attitude of society as a whole to defective hearing will not change either. For example, we would scarcely notice whether a voicer of organ pipes wore glasses, yet we would certainly notice his hearing aids. If we did notice them, our first reaction might be to ask ourselves whether we had employed the right man. The answer to the question would, of course, be yes. We would be employing a voicer whose hearing was in all probability fully corrected, thereby making him eminently suitable for the job. If he was beyond middle age yet he did not wear hearing aids, perhaps the logical question ought to be "why not?". 

Until society stands its current values relating to defective hearing on its head, we will not be able to emerge from the miasma of uncertainty outlined in this article. In the meantime organ builders might reflect more often on the implications of presbycusis on their products, and those who comment on them might bear in mind the state of their own hearing before rushing into print.

Notes and References

1. "The Organ", W L Sumner, 3rd edition, London 1962, p. 253.

2. It is unclear which member of the Zachariassen dynasty was identified in Sumner's remark [1], since at the time he wrote it he could have had in mind either Sybrand Zachariassen (1900 - 1960) or Sybrand Jürgen Zachariassen (b 1931) who took over the firm in 1960. It is more likely to be the former in view of the date of Sumner's book.


3. The whole subject of beats is widely and frequently misunderstood. A detailed discussion of beats is in another article on this website. See Appendix 1 to Temperament - a study of Anachronism.


4. A detailed discussion of loudness as it affects organ stops is in another article on this website.  See The Tonal Structure of Organ Flutes.


5. "The ear can't hear as high as that", John Norman, Organists' Review, February 2011.



Appendix 1 - a few words about decibels


Decibels (dB) are a convenient (logarithmic) means of representing the variation in minimum-perceptible voltage or sound levels shown in Figure 1 in the main text. Scientists and engineers use them frequently, and the approximate relation between some dB values and the corresponding changes in the voltage applied to the headphones of an audiometer are shown in the table below. The large numbers in the "voltage ratio" column would be unwieldy to plot directly, but the main problem is that the smaller values would become impossible to discern. The corresponding decibel values are easier to handle and do not result in the problem of plotting the smaller ratios.  This is because, while the ratios vary between 1 and 10,000, the dB values only vary between 0 and 80.  This advantage is one of the reasons for the frequent use of a decibel scale.


Voltage Ratio

dB value

1 (no change)





















Some voltage ratios and their decibel equivalents