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science

Visualizing acoustics

We go to the orchestra to be emotionally moved, touched by sound and to experience those magical goosebumps. But achieving that is not wizardry. It's science.

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By Jakub Chrobok & Alexandra Fuchs
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Inside advantage

The volume of sound, as well as the way it travels through space, both affect the listener’s perception of it. If a musician plays a sound too quietly, it may be lost to the listener, but a quiet sound clearly heard can add intimacy to the performance. An interior room allows for sound reflections from all sides that bring the music to listeners at an appropriate volume.

Shoebox

The ideal proportions of the width, height and length of a shoebox venue are 1:1:2. Musicians perform on a stage at the front, and balconies flank the sides of the rectangular hall. Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal (1870), the Boston Symphony Hall (1900) and the Lugano Arte e Cultura (2015) in Italy all follow this model, as well as the future home of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

The Vineyard

Reminiscent of an indoor amphitheater, a vineyard style concert venue features terraced seating seating around the orchestra’s sunken stage. Audiences feel closer to the action, at the price of some acoustic effectiveness. Nonetheless, most modern concert halls, like the Berlin Philharmonie (1963), choose this visually pleasant architectural approach.

Contoured ceiling

Auditorium designs ensure an equal distribution of sound by slightly vaulting the ceiling. The purposeful arrangement of contours reflects the music to every seat in the hall.


Double function

An additional reflector panel serves both the audience and the orchestra by shortening the path of the sound to the audience and providing feedback to the orchestra.

The side story

Side panels create atmosphere in a room by providing a feeling of intimacy with the performance while aiding the sound’s movement around the room.

Peak performance

Because hard angles can trap sound, soft curves in the balcony railings act as diffusers to distribute sound more evenly across the room.

Unsightly shapes

Architects avoid concave curves which clash reflected sounds together.

Intended absorption

Material selection and surface design are carefully selected, depending on the purpose. Some walls and seats are meant to reflect sound, others to absorb it.

Absorption coefficient

A material’s thickness and surface structure determine how much sound the material will absorb. The material’s absorption coefficient ranges from 0 to 1.00 on a scale of total reflection to total absorption. Rear walls, balconies and seats need to absorb sound and dull echoes, which are detrimental to acoustics.

Audience effect

A filled concert hall transmits sound much better than an empty one. Absorbing materials placed under the seats during rehearsals compensate for the lack of bodies so musicians can practice with the effect of a full house.

Computer simulation

How much, and when, sound reaches an audience member determines whether the listener has a good musical experience. Auditory physicists use simulation tools to understand how individual sound characteristics will move through a room under varying conditions.

Reflectogram in action

A computer model allows the acoustician to simulate a sound’s journey from start to finish as it reverberates through space.

THE JOURNEY OF SOUND

Physical sound waves spread through space by displacing air molecules. What listeners experience as the pitch or frequency of a sound, measured in Hertz (Hz), is the result of the wave’s length and speed as it moves through space. The amplitude or volume increases with increased height of the wave.

Spheres of perception

Physicists divide the perspectives of musicians and audience members into five categories. In this way, they attempt to quantify the poles of sound quality and describe a measurement that presents perfectly balanced acoustics.

Ranking performance

What makes a concert hall famous for its acoustics is a balance of the five factors, but each is unique. To claim that a concert hall has the best acoustics the world is a bit of a hyperbole.

GROßER MUSIKVEREINSSAAL VIENNA

The Grand Music Room of Vienna, designed in the shoebox concept by architect Theophil Hansen, opened to tremendous fanfare in 1870. Grand ceiling frescoes, golden Greek statues and glittering chandeliers transform the simple, acoustically preferable shape into a visual as well as musical temple. It is considered a crown jewel among great music venues.

Photo: Peter Meisel

CONCERTGEBOUW AMSTERDAM

Also designed as a shoebox, the great hall of Amsterdam’s modestly named »Concert Building« opened in 1888. The design by Adolf Leonard van Gendt is the home to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra.

Photo: Hans Roggen

FESTSPIELHAUS SALZBURG

For Salzburg’s mid-century festival hall, opened in 1960, architect Clemens Holzmeister built a semi-circular auditorium in a square building, giving the hall a completely different sound profile than those with a shoebox design. The 100-meter-wide stage hosts orchestral as well as scenic performances.

Photo: Peter Meisel

Halls of fame

These 11 concert halls, each famous for their sound quality, are compared here on all five measurement scales. Clearly, claiming one has the »best« acoustics is simply marketing hyperbole. Just as musicians and audiences have their own preferences, each concert hall has individual qualities that result in a magical concert experience.

Sources

Leo Beranek (2004): Concert Halls and Opera Houses: Music, Acoustics, and Architecture. In: The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America • DIN 18041, Deutsches Institut für Normung • Omid Kokabi, Technische Universität Berlin, Audio Communication GroupMarcus Fairs (06.2004): Rem Kolhaas, IconeyeJames Glanz (18.04.2000): Art + Physic = Beautiful Music, New York TimesCatalina Schröder (19.02.2016): Dr. Sound, Die Zeit

Credits

Design:
Alexandra Fuchs, Jakub Chrobok, Taisia Tikhnovetskaya
Research:
Alexandra Fuchs, Sabine Devins, Juliane Grebin
Text:
Emily Manthei
Photography:
Michael Zapf (Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg) • Peter Meisel, BRSO (Tchaikovsky Concert Hall Moscow, Großer Musikvereinssaal Vienna, Festspielhaus Salzburg) • Radek Grzybowski on Unsplash (NOSPR Katowice, Poland) • Hans Roggen (Concertgebouw, Amsterdam) • Suntory Hall, Tokyo

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