Do Acoustics Matter?

Or should it be, “Does acoustics matter?” This is just one of the many awkward points in this subject. If you are involved in building a new auditorium or renovating an old one—perhaps you’re on a PTA or church committee—you may get some help from this memo I wrote for fellow members of the Restore Bailey Hall! Committee, which advised on a seven million dollar renovation at a local high school. (The hall is real; the name “Bailey” is fictitious.)

For more on the subject, see my article, Audiences of the World, Arise!. And read Annals of Architecture: A Better Sound, by Bruce Bliven, Jr., in The New Yorker, Nov. 8, 1976. (Free to New Yorker subscribers, cheap to others.)


Some things seem clear:

Yes, good acoustics matter. “Auditorium” means a place for listening. If it isn’t good for this purpose, why spend the money and time?

Computer technology now lets us hear how the hall will sound before it’s built; not perfectly, but to a useful degree. This would have been regarded as magic a generation ago; and it’s valuable because it helps committees like ours come to agreement more quickly and with more confidence.

An acoustical consultant, or acoustician, must be involved from the first moment of the project. In case of disagreement between architect and acoustician, contracts should give priority to the latter.

The legal doctrine of “substantial performance” may interfere with your getting what you want, unless you take steps to incorporate performance standards and penalties into contracts. You may want the contract to say that the specified performance is “of the essence of this contract”; but don’t take my word for it. I’m not an attorney! Consult an attorney experienced in this sort of contracts!)

I’m not an acoustical consultant, either. What I am is a pianist; and through my career, I’ve seen that fine auditoriums inspire performers to give their best, provide the most intimate communication between performers and audience, assure that audiences receive the maximum of enjoyment, and attract additional events to the venue. Yet it’s rare for individuals or a committee to choose to make a fine hall.

You can be the exception. Make decisions that are acoustically beneficial, see that engineering and construction are carried out properly; and the fine acoustics will be your legacy to future performers, listeners, and your community.


Quietness and good acoustics

Several people on our committee have suggested that since Bailey Hall is not going to end up perfectly quiet, it isn’t worth it to make it quieter than it is now. And since the acoustics won’t be perfect, it’s not worth making them better. By contrast, I think every little bit counts.

Good acoustics are what bring the audience the full beauty and meaning of the sound produced on stage, and enhance that sound with the “bloom” of the hall’s reverberation. Good acoustics let the performer control the sound for greatest expressiveness.

Good acoustics involves questions like:

How much reverberation does the hall have, and what is its character?

Does the reverb last long enough to support the sound, so the performer benefits from the “bloom” and doesn’t feel he or she is working into cotton wool?

Does it last about the same amount of time for all pitches, or do some last much longer than others (which can sound weird)?

Does it die away smoothly (good), or does it have distinct echoes (bad)?

Is the power of the sound fully conveyed to the audience (good); or is it lost in wings or fly-gallery, or absorbed by walls or shell that are too floppy (bad)?


Quietness allows the audience to hear the finest details without straining. This is important because details of sound communicate details of feeling. And because a quiet hall makes soft sounds more audible, the performer can produce a wider “dynamic range”—from softest to loudest—without having to make the loudest sounds impossibly loud and therefore ugly. A wider range makes performances more expressive.

Quietness involves questions like:

How much noise is audible in the hall, and what is its character?

Is it a low-pitched hum, which will cover the voices of some actors and bass and baritone singers, cellos, double-basses, tubas and trombones?

Is it higher-pitched, where it will interfere with other actors, and with sopranos, altos or tenors, violins, violas, flutes and clarinets?

Does it have a pitch, which will become a dissonant note in every moment of performance? (Every vent fan and every motor makes noise with a distinct pitch—listen to your refrigerator—which is why their noises must be carefully isolated.)

Is it a smooth wash of sound, which may be relatively unnoticed? Or a succession of noises like a jack-hammer, which cannot be ignored?

Is it always present, like air-conditioning in hot weather, or occasional, like a toilet flushing?

Is it produced inside the hall (fans) or outside (airplanes, motorcycles)?


Noise is one thing; acoustics is another. What you do to improve either one has basically nothing to do with the other. Bailey Hall, according to the measurements, is noisy! Yet the acoustics are promising.


Who will benefit if noise is reduced and acoustics improved? Everybody on stage and off, in every performance and every rehearsal. But the ones most in my mind are the students, our children. As a performer, I know how much their experience, and their education, will be enhanced by having Bailey Hall more nearly what it can be.

In a quiet hall with good acoustics, hesitant voices and instruments will still be heard. The quietness will let them be heard; and the acoustics will improve them. Students will emerge from the experience saying, “I can’t wait to perform again!” Parents will say, “My daughter sounded better than at home!”

In a hall with good acoustics, a normal loud sound from the stage will come across as loud to the audience, with no need for strain by actor, singer or instrumentalist; thus no risk of ugly tone. The full power of the sound will be conveyed. Students will say, “I filled the hall with my sound!” Parents will say, “My son sounded like a pro!”

In these days of amplified sound, we forget that real voices and instruments can only play so loud and no louder. And we forget how lovely is the sound of natural voices and instruments, because we are so used to the corruption of amplification. (All amplification corrupts!)

A quiet hall widens the “dynamic range” of performances—the range from loudest to softest. This communicates a wider range of emotion because in performance, as in everyday life, louds and softs are directly related to feeling. Students will say, “I really got into it!” Parents will say, “They really communicated!”

The quieter the hall, the lower the audience’s stress level, and the more welcoming it will feel. Students will say, “The audience were such good listeners!” Parents will say, “I even enjoyed listening to other people’s kids!”

Who will suffer if Bailey’s noise is not reduced and acoustics not improved? Everybody on stage and in the audience, in every performance and every rehearsal. But the ones most in my mind are the students, our children. In a hall that’s noisy or has bad acoustics, the performance is harder to hear, and the expressive points tend to be lost. Soft parts, whether spoken, sung or played, are less audible, so fine details of feeling are less clear. Loud parts don’t come across as loud, so the feeling they convey is lost, too. Noises inside and outside the hall distract the audience’s attention. Student performers will say, “What was the point of all the preparation? I couldn’t put it across!” Parents will say, “I guess my child isn’t as good as I thought. And come to think of it, none of the kids sounded good.”

Some have pointed out that even if the hall were utterly silent in terms of internal noise, there would still be noise from outside. This is true. However, noise from outside will be much reduced when the room is finished, because many openings will be properly sealed. And when you’re in a big quiet space—for instance, a church—there’s a “distancing” of outside noise. Psychologically, it doesn’t bother you so much, because of the interior quietness of the space.

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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