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Dr Andy Moorhouse on piano ...

BBC radio docs on sound:

- presented by Prof Trevor Cox

Concert Hall Acoustics: Art and Science

Can you hear me at the back?

A concert hall must enable the musicians to achieve their desired dynamic, from the quietest solo to the loudest fanfare.

Leo Beranek, one of the most famous and eminent acoustic engineers and concert hall designers in the 20th century wrote:
“The thrill of hearing Bach’s B minor Mass, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is not only determined by the quality of the orchestra and interpretation of the conductor, but is enhanced immeasurably by the dynamic response of the concert hall.  Response means both quiet support for the pianissimo parts and majestic levels at the fortissimos”

To achieve a loud sound:

  • Listeners should be a close to the orchestra as possible.  If necessary, reflectors and diffusers may be used to provide beneficial supporting sound reflections
  • Listeners should have a line of sight to the orchestra so the sound can travel unobstructed.
  • The interior surfaces of the hall should be hard to ensure that sound energy is not absorbed and lost.

In a ‘vineyard terracing’ concert hall, the audience is sub-divided.  This provides additional supporting reflections and also ensures that more of the audience can be seated close to the orchestra.  Both help the orchestra to achieve a loud sound.

picture of vineyardphoto of vineyard

An acoustician writes:
“The volume of the sound reaching the listener is the most important factor in determining their emotional response.  If we play sounds from different concert halls to subjects and ask them to tell us which is the best, the judgement will usually favour the hall where the sound is loudest.  Studies in British halls have shown that listeners perceive louder music as being more lively and intimate.  In our homes, we have control over the volume of music from our stereo systems.  What does this do to our perception of concert hall sound?”

Sound is measured in decibels, often using a sound level metre. Our subjective impression of the loudness of a sound depends not only on its decibel value, but also on its pitch.  The human ear roughly perceives an increase of 10 decibels as a doubling in loudness.  The smallest increase in sound level that an ear can hear is about 1 decibel, but it depends on the type of sound to which you are listening.

The largest orchestra does not necessarily produce the loudest sound – it all depends on the acoustic of the hall in which the orchestra is playing.  Take an extreme example of a large orchestra used to fill a large hall.  In 1844 a concert involving 1022 performers took place in the temporary Hall of Machinery at the Exhibition of Industrial Products in Paris.  Afterwards the composer Hector Berlioz said of the performance “my March to the Scaffold which normally sounds so vigorous and powerfully scored in a normal concert hall, appeared muted and feeble".

Dynamics play a vital role in musical expression.
"It does not matter whether the music is major or minor, quick of slow, ¾ or 2/4, even or jerky, staccato or legato, high or low, up or down: the louder the music gets, the more emphasis is given to what is being expressed; and naturally, the converse holds good – the softer, the less emphasis. ….. beyond a certain point of softness, a new kind of emphasis appears.  When we get to pp (as soft as possible) or ppppp (which must mean three times softer than possible , the composer (or sometimes only the conductor) achieves the emphasis of secrecy, forcing what he has to say upon our attention by making us strain our ears.”

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(c) Bridget Shield, Trevor Cox 1999/2000. The material maybe re-used provided a link to the website is provided and a clear acknowledgement to the curators given.