Out of Place: A HyperHistory of the Elusive Acoustics of Concert Hall Venues



Laurie Shulman
Photo by Bill Fox, City of Richardson

What is the ideal venue in which to hear music?

You might just as well ask, “What’s the best type of music?” For both questions, it depends on what music you like. With respect to where you listen, the best venue for music depends on what you want to hear. No one space is the right venue for all music. A large symphonic concert hall is not, in all likelihood, ideally suited to chamber music. Similarly, the same large hall, if it is specifically designed for orchestral performance, will be inadequate as a venue for opera. Conversely, a theater is almost always a poor venue for concert music. An organ recital or a choral work may sound marvelous in the reverberant space of a large church, but an orchestra will sound like mud in the same space.

The variety among these types of music and the spaces in which we hear them is at the mercy of acoustics. Superior acoustics have always been considered desirable in planning performance space for music, but designers have not always understood the factors that contributed to excellent sound, nor how to achieve those factors. Today, thanks to advances in acoustical research and practical understanding, the quality of the listening experience has emerged as a key element of planning for performing arts facilities. Acoustics has come into its own as an essential component of the building and design process, and the size and shape of the concert hall is changing.

But changing from what? Concert halls have undergone their own evolution in the past one hundred years. As in other fields, certain concepts and ideas have gone in and out of fashion. Not surprisingly, technology and research have wrought their own effect on the field of concert hall design.

Each type of commonly found performance space—concert hall, recital hall, multi-purpose room, opera house, theatre, church—has its own acoustical properties. The principal variants in these spaces, and the most important factors affecting their acoustical properties, are size and shape. Other characteristics have an impact on the way musical sound behaves in an enclosed space: materials (also called finishes), conformation of audience seating (seating rake), balconies, etc.

The basic principles that govern the way musical sound behaves in an enclosed space derive from the laws of physics, which do not, of course, change. Our understanding of sound behavior has changed a great deal, however, in the past thirty years. Because of advances made by acoustical researchers, we know more about why certain halls are great for music, while others sound uninspired.

Still, audiences and musicians will seek out places to hear and perform music no matter what the acoustics are. Some of the most exciting musical experiences even happen in the great outdoors where the quality of the sound is almost guaranteed to be not so great!

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