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- presented by Prof Trevor Cox

Concert Hall Acoustics: Art and Science

Reverberation

Wallace Sabine started the study of room acoustics atthe turn of the century by his studies of reverberation. He used theseprinciples to design he famous Boston Symphony Hall. Sir Adrian Boult wroteof this hall “The ideal concert hall is obviously that into which youmake a not very pleasant sound and the audience receives something thatis quite beautiful. I maintain that this really can happen in Boston SymphonyHall; it is our ideal”

The reverberation time of a hall is the oldest and one of the most subjectively important measures of a good concert hall. Reverberation is the decay of sound after a note has stopped being played. It is mostnoticeable in a large space with hard surfaces, such as a cathedral wherethe sound echoes around long after a note has finished. In small spaceswith plenty of soft materials, such as a bedroom, the sound is quicklyabsorbed by the soft furnishings, and dies away rapidly.

When people talk about rooms being live or dead this is largely their perception of the reverberation in a room. The musicologist, Thurston Dart, summarises the influence that reverberation has on composers:
“But even a superficial study shows that early composers were very aware of the effect on their music of the surroundings in which it was to be performed, and that they deliberately shaped their music accordingly. Musical acoustics can be roughly divided into resonant, room and outdoor. Plainsong is resonant music; so is the harmonic style of l?onin and P?rotin .. P?rotin’s music, in fact, is perfectly adapted to the acoustics of thehighly resonant cathedral (Notre Dame Paris) for which it was written …Gabrieli’s music for brass concert is resonant, written for the Cathedralof St. Mark’s; music for brass concert by Hassler or Mathew Locke is open-airmusic, using quite a different style from the same composers’ music forstringed instrument, designed to be played indoors. Purcell distinguished in style between the music he wrote for Westminster Abbey and the musiche wrote for the Chapel Royal; both styles differ from that of his theatremusic, written for performance in completely dead surroundings. The formsused by Mozart and Haydn in their chamber and orchestral music are identical;but the details of style (counterpoint, ornamentation, rhythm , the layoutof chords and the rate at which harmonies change) will vary according towhether they are writing room-music, concert-music or street-music”
Thurston Dart, musicologist, “The interpretation of Music”,Hutchinson, London pp56-57 (1954).

Three other interesting quotes about reverberation.
1. Hope Bagenal, architectural acoustician
“The reducing of reverberation in Lutheran churches ... enabled string parts to be heard and distinguished and allowing a brisk tempo, was the most important single fact in the history of music because it leads directly to the St Matthew passion and the B minor Mass”

2. Isaac Stern (musician)
“Reverberation is of great help to a violinist. Ashe goes from one note to another the previous note perseveres and he has the feeling that each note is surrounded by strength, When this happens,the violinist does not feel that his playing is bare or naked – there is a friendly aura surrounding each note”

3. E. Power Biggs
“An organist will take all the reverberation time he is given, and then ask for a bit more, for ample reverberation is part of organ music itself. Many of Bach’s organ works are designed actually to exploit reverberation. Consider the pause that follows the ornamentedproclamation that opens the famous Toccata in D minor. Obviously this isfor the enjoyment of the notes as they remain suspended in the air”

The time taken for the sound to decay from a normal speech level to inaudible is the reverberation time.
Typical reverberation times (in seconds)
 

Location Reverberation time (s)
Outdoors 0.0
Average bedroom / living room 0.4
Theatre for speech 0.9
New Glyndebourne Opera house 1.3
St David's Hall Cardiff (concert hall) 2.1
Symphony Hall Birmingham (concert hall) 2.4
St. Paul's Cathedral 13

Note, an overly long reverberation time can make the notes blend together too much, making it hard to distinguish individual notesin fast complex passages and different music styles need different reverberation.

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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.