The Acoustics of Performance Halls

J. Christopher Jaffe on how dissatisfaction with a single high-profile venue ushered in a revolution in concert hall design.

If a shoebox hall in New York City, one of the world’s capitals of music, could fail, what hope was there for the rest of us? However, just as Cowboy Tex always rescued the maiden in distress at the last minute, an acoustic savior appeared in the person of Dr. Leo Beranek, who revolutionized concert and performance hall design by refining the musical acoustic translation system that enabled musicians and acousticians to converse with one another.

A founder of the acoustical consultant firm known as Bolt, Beranek & Newman, Dr. Beranek had originally been asked to consult on the design for Philharmonic Hall (alas, his many recommendations had been ignored). As part of his preparation for that assignment, Dr. Beranek traveled the globe for several years, attending concerts in dozens of countries and interviewing conductors, musicians, and music critics to obtain their subjective evaluation of the acoustical characteristics of concert halls throughout the world.

At the time of his travels, electronic acoustic instrumentation was sufficiently refined for Beranek to accumulate a wealth of physical acoustic measurements. He then compared this data against the specific subjective observations he had collected. Building on Sabine’s work from early in the century, Beranek devised a translation system that finally enabled musicians and architectural acoustic scientists to speak with one another, a virtual acoustical Rosetta Stone. Beranek put all of this together in 1962 in a book entitled “Music, Acoustics, and Architecture,” which quickly became a handbook for those of us coming up in the profession. In brief, Beranek asserted that early reflections equaled presence, clarity, and definition, while sufficient reverberation provided liveness and warmth.

Beranek’s work segued neatly into the creation of a new profession: the concert hall acoustician. Those of us who applied the new translation system in our design work and appreciated that subjective listening experiences were related to specific characteristics of sound-wave patterns in rooms, not just the geometry, were able to create traditional listening environments without having to copy the architecture or construction materials of nineteenth-century buildings. Acousticians around the world were able to break the mold and design venues such as the Philharmonie in Berlin; the Town Hall Auditorium in Christchurch, New Zealand; the Sala Nezahualcóyotl in Mexico City; the Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, Holland; Boettcher Hall in Denver; and Suntory Hall in Tokyo. They stand as proof that reflecting patterns, not geometry, are the key to reproducing the traditional European symphonic sound environment.

Acousticians were now able to break away from the shoebox geometry and create more intimate environments that matched the traditional sound of the early shoebox halls, those buildings in which the processes of composing and performing symphonies had been born.

Excerpted from “The Acoustics of Performance Halls.” Copyright © 2010 by J. Christopher Jaffe. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W.W Norton & Company, Inc.

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