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Acoustics: The Sounds of Science
Architecture and public performance are both nearly as old as humanity itself, but it took a 19th-century physicist to figure out how to integrate the two. Read on to learn more about how architects help concerts sound better.
Building an auditorium with good acoustics means incorporating architecture that provides a specific blend of benefits. In physics terms, the room must project sound into a space with clarity, even dispersion, and just the right amount of reverberation.
Reverberation: The single most-important concept in acoustic architecture, reverberation is the collective quality of all the sounds reflected within an auditorium. Surfaces can either reflect sound waves, making the sound more prominent, or absorb them, diminishing its power. A proper auditorium should strike a balance between the two.
Even Dispersion: Sounds should be evenly dispersed through an auditorium, avoiding any prominent echoes or dead spots. Architects often achieve this by breaking walls into angled segments or focusing sounds using curves.
Clarity: Although a longer reverberation time results in fuller, richer sounds, it also can make for garbled speech and muddled music, so some compromise is necessary. Different materials also may affect the absorption rates of different sounds, which can aid clarity. Wood, for example, absorbs high frequencies more than lows, giving a slight boost to bass sounds.
In 1895, Harvard unveiled the Fogg Art Museum, a paragon of elegant architecture. But as beautiful as the striking dome and arched perimeter looked, it was virtually impossible for audiences to hear. In the words of the university’s president at the time, the lecture room “had been found impractical and abandoned as unusable.” Wallace Clement Sabine, the man tasked with solving this seemingly impossible puzzle, wasn’t an architect or even a performer—he was a young physics professor with no background in acoustics. What he did have, however, was a giant pile of seat cushions. By applying the sound-absorbing material to the walls, Sabine drastically reduced the disruptive reverberations, stumbling upon one of the basic principles outlined above. Soon after his triumph in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he helped design Boston’s Symphony Hall—the first concert hall constructed on the principles of quantitative acoustics, and widely considered one of the best-sounding venues in the world today.