Playing the flute generates fewer airborne particles than speaking, study finds

Professional trumpeter Alison Balsom taking part in the study (University of Bristol/PA)

Playing wind instruments generates fewer airborne particles than speaking or singing and is no different than a person breathing, according to new research.

Scientists say the findings, published online in the journal Aerosol Science and Technology, could help develop a roadmap for lifting Covid-19 restrictions in the performing arts.

The study examined the amount of aerosols – a suspension of fine particles or liquid droplets – generated when a person played woodwind and brass instruments compared with breathing and vocalisation – speaking and singing.

It involved nine musicians playing 13 woodwind and brass instruments such as the flute, piccolo, clarinet, trumpet and trombone in an operating theatre with no background aerosol particles.

Results showed the amount of aerosol particles of less than 20 micro metres diameter – less than half the width of a human hair – generated when playing the instruments was similar to that produced by breathing.

Aerosol concentrations produced while instrument playing were lower than those associated with vocalising at high volume.

Large droplets of more than 20 micro metres diameter were not observed while the musicians were playing the instruments but were seen during singing and coughing.

Dr Bryan Bzdek, lecturer in the school of chemistry at the University of Bristol, said: “Our study found playing woodwind and brass instruments generates less aerosol than vocalisation, which could have important policy implications in a roadmap to lifting Covid-19 restrictions, as many performing arts activities have been, and continue to be, severely restricted.”

The study found concentrations of aerosol emissions from the musicians during breathing and vocalising were consistent with results from research carried out last year on a large group of professional singers.

No difference was found between the aerosol concentrations generated by professional and amateur performers while breathing or vocalising.

This suggests that aerosol generation is consistent across all singers, regardless of vocal training.

Professor Jonathan Reid, director of Bristol Aerosol Research Centre, said: “This study confirms that the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 are likely elevated during vocalisation at loud volume in poorly ventilated spaces.

“By comparison, playing wind instruments, like breathing, generates less particles that could carry the virus than speaking or singing.”

The study was part of the Perform (ParticulatE Respiratory Matter to InForm Guidance for the Safe Distancing of PerfOrmeRs in a COVID-19 PandeMic) project.

This is supported by Public Health England, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and UK Research and Innovation.

Research was carried out by a collaborative team from Imperial College London, the University of Bristol, Wexham Park Hospital, Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust and Royal Brompton Hospital.

The paper, Aerosol and droplet generation from performing with woodwind and brass instruments, is published in Aerosol Science and Technology.