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Architectural Acoustics: Historical Monuments to Modern Day Concert Halls

17/10/2019, Author: Audio Academy

Since time immemorial, structures have been constructed so that theatrical and musical performances could be communicated to large audiences. In the Greek-Roman era, the ancient open amphitheaters and the roofed odeia did this for audiences as large as 15,000 spectators. Open theatres were used to stage theatrical performances since their acoustics were designed for speech intelligibility, allowing the audience to hear the dialogue and songs clearly. Smaller roofed versions of these theatres called “odeia” had different acoustic qualities with strong reverberation. Therefore, these were better venues for performing music rather than for speech and theatre and weren’t unlike modern-day concert halls. The evolution of such buildings began possibly from the Minoan and archaic times, around the twelfth century BC.

Theatre of Epidaurus
Theater of Epidaurus

The most famous of the Greek theatres is the magnificent Hellenic one at Epidaurus which has acoustics that is so sophisticated that even the audiences in the back row are able to hear music and voices with amazing clarity. This is even more remarkable considering that it was built at a time before any theatre had the luxury of a sound system. The reason this ancient amphitheater is an acoustic marvel is thanks to its seats. The rows of limestone seats at Epidaurus form an efficient acoustics filter that quietens low-frequency background noises like the murmur of a crowd and reflects the high-frequency noises of the performers on stage off the seats and back toward the seated audience member, carrying an actor’s voice all the way to the back rows of the theatre.

Another interesting perspective regarding the relationship between sound and space during the ancient times was that the acoustic character of a space was seen as something to be celebrated, rather than a fault to be rectified. Composers wrote music to suit certain kinds of spaces, just as they composed for specific performers. Gabrieli wrote with the acoustic of St. Mark’s Cathedral of Venice in mind, while Purcell wrote his Funeral Music for Queen Mary knowing that part of it would be performed in procession, in the street and part of it in Westminster Abbey. The acoustic character of a place, whether it was the grand echo of a cathedral or the intimate echo of a ducal chamber, was clearly part of the expressive fabric of the music.

However, there are also unintended acoustic effects thanks to the architecture of certain historical monuments. The most remarkable one at the mausoleum of king Mohammed Adil Shah in Bijapur, India is the whispering gallery. Inside the mausoleum is a circular gallery, right below the tomb and is known as the whispering gallery. Built in a manner that even a small whisper gets amplified and is carried to be heard clearly across a distance of more than 40 meters in the vast dome, this feature can be seen in a number of other historical monuments. St Paul’s Cathedral in London is where Lord Rayleigh discovered the whispering-gallery waves in 1878. This sonic quirk is thanks to the circular shape of the dome that allows sound waves to bounce around and round multiple times because the angles involved are so slight. That’s how someone on the other side of the walkway can hear a whisper from the other side so clearly.Instances of multiple echoes, such as this, are the Pantheon and the tomb of Caecilia Metella among others.

However, when echoes occur in venues where they shouldn’t such as the Royal Albert Hall, it becomes a problem. The dome at the new music hall that was unveiled in 1871 caused the joke to spring up that you could hear any piece twice there. Since then, there have been many interventions to reduce the effect of the dreaded echo at the famous venue with the most drastic renovations and acoustic restructuring taking place in early 2017. Another landmark venue that is infamous for its terrible acoustics is the Sydney Opera House. Edo de Waart, the former chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, once threatened to boycott the building because of the bad acoustics and an Australian bassoonist, has likened listening to a performance in the Concert Hall to watching it on a 1980s-era television. In 2016, German sound engineers were tasked with improving its acoustics in the opera hall. When Mozart, Beethoven or Grieg is on the program, the sound doesn’t linger, an effect experts call “dry acoustics.” The conditions in the orchestra pit are also known to be very cramped. Some of the plans included replacing the smooth, sound-reflecting panels with sound-absorbing surfaces as much as possible. However, nothing much can be done about the pit.

Carnegie Hall
Carnegie Hall: Stradivarius of concert halls

While no objective way to determine the best acoustics for concert halls, Carnegie Hall is sometimes called “the Stradivarius of concert halls.” The acoustics are legendary. It is said that Carnegie Hall’s architect William Burnett Tuthill, an amateur cellist, studied European concert halls famous for their acoustics, and consulted with architect Dankmar Adler, of the Chicago firm Adler and Sullivan, a noted acoustical authority. Drawing on his findings and his own intuition, he got rid of common theatrical features like heavy curtains, frescoed walls, and chandeliers that could impair good sound distribution. Carnegie Hall’s smooth interior, an elliptical shape, slightly extended stage, and domed ceiling help project soft and loud tones equally to any location in the hall with equal clarity and richness. Other concert halls known for their excellent acoustics include Vienna’s Wiener Musikverein and Boston’s Symphony Hall.

It is interesting to note that One notable trend is that the highest-rated concert halls were built before 1901. This can be attributed to their rectangular or shoebox shape and lightly upholstered seats. Many of the newer concert halls end up sacrificing sound quality for visual interest, size and comfort. The result is that while there are some excellent seats since the audience is seated everywhere, the sound quality varies widely depending on where the seat is.

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