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About this Article
Written by: Craig Thompson
Written on: September 15th, 2007
Tags: building & architecture, entertainment
Thumbnail by: Leonard Lutz/SXC
About the Author
In the fall of 2007, Craig Thompson was a mechanical engineering student at USC. From Dallas, Texas, he also studied trombone with the Thornton School of Music and performed with the USC marching band.
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Volume IX Issue I > Built for Sound: Architectural Acoustics
Architectural acoustics contribute significantly to the enjoyment of music. This is due to the relationship between a song and its intended performance venue. With the proper balance of acoustical intimacy and aliveness, performance venues are designed to accentuate the characteristics of symphonic music and provide the best listening experience possible. After enduring centuries of trial and error, acousticians have developed several methods for building concert halls. These techniques are used today in an attempt to modernize the critically acclaimed "shoebox" design while maintaining its strengths. All this has been done in an effort to apply science to the art of acoustics.

Importance of Architectural Acoustics

Consider listening to the normally crisp sound of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in a cavern. While the unusual setting might draw an interested crowd, the very first garbled phrase makes it abundantly obvious why the disruptive echoes of a cave are unsuited for symphonic music.
Leonard Lutz/SXC
Figure 1: K├Âlner Philharmonie, Cologne.
Architectura​l acoustics have an enormous impact on the way listeners enjoy music. While the cave example is a bit extreme, you may have noticed through personal experience that some music simply sounds better in certain environments. What might be surprising is that this environmental bias is written into music. For example, centuries-old organ music sounds best in the reverberant stone walls of a cathedral. Since most organs were found in massive churches at that time, contemporaneous composers wrote music specifically tuned to the giant stone cathedral. Quite simply, the style of music was partially dictated by the performance venue [1]. This has always been the case, whether the music was written for a Baroque court or an outdoor amphitheater [2].
Since music is tied to a performance venue, the challenge for modern architectural acoustics is to develop concert halls that accentuate the characteristics of a given style of music (see Fig. 1). This is made all the more challenging because music appreciation is very subjective and difficult to characterize quantitatively. With a better understanding of the human ear and the movement of sound, experts endeavor to apply science to the art of acoustics.