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Sound Effect

Advances in science have yet to improve the acoustics of concert halls.

By Susie Y. Kim, Crimson Staff Writer

Three summers ago, I had the opportunity to stay in Munich for a few days. Excited by the prospect of being in a city with such a rich musical tradition, I made sure to see the Munich Philharmonic’s concert, which was held in the Philharmonie hall in the Gasteig cultural center. The Munich Philharmonic is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished orchestras worldwide, and since its founding in 1893, it has been led by illustrious conductors Rudolf Kempe and Sergiu Celibidache. The orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s fifth symphony met my high expectations, but I remember being disappointed by the Philharmonie’s acoustics, even as a young and rather inexperienced classical music aficionado.

This discrepancy was puzzling. One would think that one of the best orchestras in the world would have a home venue fit for its skill and that a hall built in the 1980s would have been designed with the scientific tools necessary to ensure that it would, at the very least, match the sound of older concert halls around the world. Instead, the Philharmonie is notorious for its subpar acoustics. Shortly after its opening in 1985, Leonard Bernstein suggested that Munich “burn it.”

Designing a concert hall with the best conditions for classical music remains as opaque as ever—and perhaps advances in modern science have even mystified further the necessary conditions for good acoustics.


Since Bernstein’s harsh advice, others have also critiqued the acoustics of the hall; Italian conductor Riccardo Muti refuses to perform there. “There are seats behind the orchestra, and it’s pretty acoustically terrible,” says Eric J. Heller, chemistry and physics professor who taught Science of the Physical Universe 13: “The Physics of Music and Sound” last fall. “I heard the city of Munich is thinking of tearing it down.”

In building the Philharmonie, the city had to consider factors aside from the music itself, and the hall’s acoustics ultimately paid the price. For a cultural center like Munich, it was important to have a space that would look  impressive. “If a city builds a concert hall…they’re going to go for something fancy,” Heller says. “It’s a gorgeous space.” The expansive wooden walls and panels and the hall’s fan-like shape make it easy on the eyes, but they also contribute to its poor resonance. The wooden walls and panels are actually apt for concert spaces, since wood ensures that sound will bound off surfaces rather than get absorbed. However, the shape of the hall requires sound to travel further to reach a surface, so much of it dissolves before it can bounce back to create a reverberation effect.

Unforeseen logistical problems plague the hall as well. “The part that was supposed to be the opera house became the concert hall,” says Federico Cortese, music director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. “They switched the large space [to house the Munich Philharmonic], and that screwed up the acoustics. The place is famous as a concert hall, but a rather unfortunate place to perform.” Though the intended opera house was more appropriate for the Philharmonic’s size, it was acoustically unfit for classical music performance.


Even good performance spaces are borne from negotiations between conflicting needs, and Harvard’s Paine Hall was no exception. Before its recent renovation, which took over a year, Paine Hall had acoustic problems of its own. The Fanny Peabody Mason Music Building, which houses Paine Hall, had retained its original ventilation system from 1914. “It was configured with a huge fan in the basement that inflated the whole building like a big balloon,” says Robert E. Olson Jr. ’70, the architect who spearheaded the renovation project. “The ductwork that carried the air through the building would carry sound up and down as it distributed through the building. That was the state of the art in 1915…. But you would hear steam and banging [in the music hall] and you would hear the practice rooms and the custodian’s office in the basement on the second floor.” The music department had to close access to practice rooms when there was a concert in Paine Concert Hall because the sound could be heard through the vents.

Though the old ventilation system has recently been renovated, the compromise in acoustics that was made in the building’s construction in 1914—based on the different needs for a speaker and for an orchestra—remains. “For a concert hall, you want something called a reverberation time, which is the time it takes for sound produced on stage to decrease in its intensity by a factor of a million,” says Heller. “You want that to be about 2.1 seconds or so, but that’s terrible for speech. It’s too much echoing. It makes speech way too difficult to understand. You’d want [the reverberation time] to be a little over one second in a speaking hall.” Given Paine Hall’s dual purpose, its reverberation time falls in between the ideal lengths for a lecture space and concert hall.

The renovations to the building’s ventilation system were extensive yet Paine Hall’s physical appearance was untouched: It was a conscious decision to keep the acoustics of the hall the way it was. “The acoustics are good. They are as good as they can be given the hall’s size and shape,” says Anne C. Shreffler, interim chair of the Department of Music.  “It’s a multipurpose hall for lectures and performances, so it was not designed to be the perfect hall.”

Though Paine’s versatility limits its potential to be a perfect venue for a single purpose, the ability of a multi-purpose space to possess great acoustics is evident in Sanders Theatre’s success. “First and foremost, Sanders is a classroom until mid-afternoon,” wrote Ruth Polleys, program manager of Memorial Hall and Lowell Hall, in an email. “This was indeed the original plan for the space. I don’t think [Sanders Theatre] was built as a concert hall. It happens to be a wonderful hall, with wonderful acoustics...but Sanders is also perfectly designed for speaking,” says Cortese. The hall was designed as an academic theater but its acoustics came out impeccable, which enables it to be used for perfomances. The mystery behind Sanders’ sound led Wallace C. Sabine, who founded the field of architectural acoustics during his time as a Harvard professor of physics, to use the space to conduct experiments that would eventually lead him to discover the formula for reverberation time.


Though the music department has been committed to balancing the two functions of Paine Hall, in 1990 the music department made a decision that privileged its concert hall function over its lecture space function. The seating in Paine Hall was to be replaced, and there was an extensive debate on whether or not to add wooden pullout desks so that students could take notes on a hard surface during lectures. “I’m very pleased that they chose not to do this in 1990.... It would have added a lot of hard, reflective surfaces, which would [have] drastically changed the acoustics,” says Nancy B. Shafman, director of administration for the Music department.

Even without the addition of the desks, the replaced upholstery on the seats noticeably changed the character of the hall’s acoustics. “Sound gets absorbed by material. We put pads on the back of the seats, so that even if the seat was empty we would get a similar absorption affect as if a person was sitting there,” says Olson. The type and amount of upholstery affects the acoustic differences musicians will feel between a rehearsal—when all the seats are empty—and a concert. Without this provision, the presence of an audience would affect not only the ambiance of a performance but also its actual sound.

While there are larger elements that impact the acoustics of a space, like its shape, even smaller, seemingly insignificant details as these can change the hall in unpredictable and substantial ways. Even the type of paint that is used on the walls has an effect. Boston’s Symphony Hall—widely regarded as one of the most acoustically fine concert halls in the world—owes some of its success to the smallest details in its aesthetic composition. There are statues embedded in the upper walls, and the railings on the balconies have intricate designs on it. “A small fig leaf that bulges from the wall helps segment high frequency sound,” says Heller. “A statue that’s about six feet tall is helping to scatter the lower-frequency sound. You want sound to be randomized in its direction after a couple of bounces of the walls and ceilings.”


Given the fact that the smallest detail can affect the acoustics of a space, the construction of a concert hall is still risky. Despite advances in the science of sound, acoustic architects still cannot fully account for every such detail in the design of a concert hall. Sound waves are chaotic. “We have computer programs that can actually check out the designs,” says Heller. “But it turns out that it is too much work for even the most powerful computers to follow every single wave of sound.”

Older concert halls, designed with anecdotal principles and evidence in  mind, tend to have better acoustics than modern halls. “The concert halls that were built in the early 19th and 20th century are to this day the most beautiful and acoustically perfect halls,” Shreffler says. “People go to these old halls and try to figure it out. Acousticians study them: What makes it so perfect? Why are there no bad seats? Is it the material? The shape? And certain things are known, but they have derived principles from studying these old halls.”

Though the Paine Hall renovations may have been a chance to update the acoustics of the space using modern science, the department, aware of this history, chose not to. “When you start fiddling with acoustics, there’s always the danger of making them worse,” says Shreffler. The science is frustratingly imprecise.

Thus, results of incorporating such science into the process of designing concert halls have been mixed at best. “In the 20th century, it became much more complex,” says Cortese. “From just a matter of tradition, it became a matter of intellectual knowledge to create the right reverberations with buildings that were more sophisticated but not necessarily following the old rules for the orchestra.” Though some concert halls built with the help of science in the late 20th century have been immensely successful—like the Berliner Philharmonie, constructed in the ’60s—there is still much to be learned from the existing tradition of acoustics.


Concert hall architects must also contend with the fact that different types of classical music are best heard in different acoustic circumstances. Earlier classical music generally demands crisp sounds, which means that a hall with a lot of reverberation would not be a good place for such a performance. “[Boston’s] Symphony Hall has beautiful acoustics,” says Lidiya Yankovskaya, a professional conductor. “I think the acoustics are reflective of when it was built. It is most suited to Beethoven or early Romantic music. But I did Bach’s St. John Passion last year, and I was singing in the chorus. We were working so hard to make all the articulations super clear. But one rehearsal I sat out and listened, and it had turned into mush because the space is so lush.”

Yankovskaya is also the current musical director of the Lowell House Opera. The production must annually overcome the challenges of performing in a dining hall. Ironically, though this space was built with no intention of being used as an opera hall, it is markedly successful.  “The acoustics work,” Yankovskaya says. “For the stage, we build a large set of platforms so that it is not a dining hall anymore by the time that everyone is done with it.”

As Lowell House Opera has to work with its traditional venue despite its potential flaws, other musicians and artistic programmers around Cambridge and Boston must strike a balance between acoustics and logistical factors when choosing a performance space. The Celebrity Series of Boston books around 40 performances per season. The selection of venue depends on practical concerns like expected audience size and availability of the space, but the organization must also accommodate the needs of the artists. “It’s sort of a chess game of trying to find the right thing for the artist and the hall,” says Stephanie Janes, the publicity and communications manager of the series.While New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall is widely regarded as the best hall in Boston for chamber music, pianist Lang Lang was presented in Symphony Hall because the demand for tickets was so high. The Emerson String Quartet, though, will be performing in Jordan Hall on April 27. “The Emerson String Quartet has performed in Jordan Hall before, and they really like the acoustics there,” Janes says.


Part of what makes acoustics so important to musicians and enthusiasts is that it affects the caliber of the performance itself. “We had to play for hundreds of reasons in bad venues, and the musicians did not enjoy that,” says Cortese. “Everyone is happier when people can hear each other. It affects the mood, because you don’t have to work as hard.” Not only do good acoustics contribute to how well an orchestra can play together, but it also ensures that the musicians feel more confident—which makes for a better classical music experience.

The perfect concert space can also recreate the sound that the composer intended. According to Cortese, Verdi’s operas are best heard in 18th-century theater in Italy, since those are the halls that Verdi wrote for. “Every time you do an opera in the United States, the proportions [between sections] are off. As soon as you perform in an old theater, you have it right away.” The right acoustics brings musicians and listeners closer to the old masters’ visions.

—Staff writer Susie Y. Kim can be reached at

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