Last Updated on October 9, 2022 by Barry Gray
There’s something so powerful about sitting in the audience at a classical music concert with its curved or oddly shaped ceilings. The magnificent strains of Mozart, Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky transport you to another world as the orchestra members play from the bottom of their souls. Concert halls often have the most interesting architecture, but why are the ceilings curved?
The ceilings in concert halls are curved to ensure that the sound evenly reaches all parts of the building. The shape of the ceiling is designed to allow the sound to bounce out to the entire audience and back to the musicians, producing optimum clarity, volume, and blending of instruments.
Something changes when you walk through the concert hall doors, all dressed up and anticipating your time in a fairytale world of music and perhaps dance. As the conductor draws the first perfectly synchronized notes from his orchestra, you are captivated by the beauty of sound. Who knew science could be so beautiful and hypnotic?
Why Are The Ceilings Of Concert Halls Curved?
Acoustics is one of the vital aspects of the design of a concert hall. It’s all about getting the best possible sound, whether speech or music.
The Science Of Sound And Curved Ceilings
When we hear a sound, it’s the source of the sound that vibrates and bounces into air molecules closest to it, which bounce against those closest to them, and so it goes on. These vibrations create a wave that floats over to the air in the eardrum, which will also vibrate. The sound waves will continue to travel until the molecules have exhausted all their energy.
When you are in a space with many hard, smooth surfaces, the sound is reflected back. This is what we call an echo. Echoes typically occur in small venues with hard walls or where there are many hard surfaces surrounding you, e.g., caves, canyons, or mountain ranges. If sound waves meet soft surfaces, they will not be reflected but absorbed.
Though it may be fun to hear your voice reverberate back to you a few times when you’re in the mountains, this is not the ideal situation in a concert hall. Echoes cause confusion and will turn a symphony orchestra performance into a nightmare. This is where curved and shaped ceilings come in.
The Science And Architecture Of Great Concert Halls
In truth, it’s not only the curved ceilings but all the surfaces of a concert hall are designed around acoustics. Architects design these surfaces to push sounds out so that they reach all parts of the hall evenly without creating echoes or sound that is unclear.
A 19th-century physicist, Wallace Clement Sabine, was the first to measure the factors that contributed to the acoustics of a room. He used a stopwatch and some seat cushions and created an equation for calculating reverberation time, making it possible to define how sound travels and is absorbed according to the surfaces in a space.
Famous Concert Halls With Superb Sound
Since Sabine’s discovery, architects no longer have to depend on their intuition and previous successful plans to construct halls with excellent acoustics.
- Musik Verein in Vienna, though built before Sabine’s discovery, is a small rectangular building with beautifully painted high ceilings. There are gilt-edged, indented balconies surrounding the hall, and these angles and surfaces are ideal for creating a radiant sound experience for the audience.
- Concertgebouw in Amsterdam was also built before architectural acoustics was understood and modeled after other concert halls that had a good sound. The initial acoustics were not that good, but in 1899 they rebuilt the orchestra platform and decreased the steepness of the risers.
- The Boston Symphony Hall, Boston, was one of the first halls designed using scientific theory, with its ceiling, walls, and a floor that slopes inward to push the sound into the audience. There are exactly 5 inches between each seat and has the perfect balance between excellent acoustics and aesthetics, with coffered ceilings, leather seats, and Greek statues.
- Tokyo’s Opera City Concert Hall has a shoebox-type shape, with many straight lines and right-angled surfaces, with rows of windows. It has oak walls and ceilings with angled grooves designed to break up the sound and reflect it high above the audience. The hall has a pyramidal vaulted ceiling that is both beautiful and acoustically efficient.
- Philharmonie de Paris is only seven years old and designed with all the architectural principles to ensure that every surface reflects the sound perfectly and improves the acoustics, including the sweeping curves of the balconies and walls and the panels suspended from the ceiling.
- Elbphilaharmonie of Hamburg is a scientific and acoustic masterpiece. It was designed using sound algorithms, issued by over 10 000 panels covering the ceiling, balustrades, and walls. A million cells shape the sound. The uneven panels will either absorb or reflect the sound to balance the reverberation throughout the hall.
How Curved Ceilings And Other Furnishings Affect Acoustics
Hard surfaces bounce the sound around, and soft furnishings absorb it. Curved or oddly shaped ceilings reflect the sound in all directions and allow the sound to travel further. Architects sometimes use rough surfaces on ceilings and walls to disperse sound in multiple directions and to dispel any echoes.
The Carnegie Hall in New York transformed its acoustics by removing many of its typical concert hall features, such as chandeliers, thick curtains, and frescoed walls.
The Effect Of Acoustics On People’s Emotions
Research done at Aalto University found that the emotional response of music listeners was directly related to the acoustics of the concert hall. Previous research had shown that strong emotional responses could elicit goosebumps and shivers from the listener. Researchers could detect weaker reactions by monitoring changes in the electrical skin conductance.
The test subjects in the later research listened to the same musical piece performed in different concert halls. The results indicated that listeners had stronger emotional responses in shoebox-style halls, such as Vienna Musikverein, because of their excellent acoustics.
Curved ceilings and surfaces with their angles and grooves are all about improving the concert hall’s acoustics. The science behind these designs has allowed architects to construct concert halls that are masterpieces in terms of beauty and sound. And now we know that those shivers of delight and the enchantment we feel at a live performance in a concert hall are due to the science of sound.