The Acoustics Behind the World’s Most Renowned Concert Halls

Grand Piano on Stage in an empty concert hall.

From symphony orchestras to classical concerts, avid music enthusiasts travel near and far to see their favorite musicians perform on enchanting stages across the globe, many of which are housed in grandiose concert halls with architectural styles that reflect a range of time periods. Much of the excitement from a live performance is derived from the audience’s connection with the sounds they hear. In fact, research from Aalto University in Finland found that the emotional impact experienced by music listeners depends on a concert hall’s acoustics, but delivering an unrivaled acoustic experience is no easy feat.

To achieve the balance between optimal acoustics and architectural splendor, architects, sound engineers, and acoustic consultants are together tasked with building an aesthetically impressive structure as well as one that reflects noise in a way that elicits a strong, emotional response. Here, we uncover the acoustics behind some of the most renowned concert halls, many of which were constructed well before scientific theories on sound were established.

How Architectural Acoustics Work

The beginning of architectural acoustics as a science began at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum in the late 19th century. It was decided that the lecture hall had inadequate acoustics, so American physicist Wallace Clement Sabine was tasked with discovering why. Sabine tested the acoustics of the room using a stopwatch and number of seat cushions, formulating an equation for reverberation time. He was the first to quantify and measure factors that contribute to room acoustics, and as a result, the unit for a material’s sound absorption—the sabine—is named after him.

Before this discovery, architects had to rely on intuition and previous successes to guide their constructions. Since, pioneers in sound have collaborated with world renowned architects and designers to create structural masterpieces, both impressive in aesthetic and sound. Below, we’ve highlighted some of the most extraordinary concert halls worldwide, and how the evolution of sound has influenced design and structure.

MusikVerein, Vienna (1812)

outside of the MusikVerein concert hall at dusk with lights lighting up entrance of building.

Classical music lovers are drawn to the rich sound and Neoclassical architecture offered by the MusikVerein in Vienna. The venue was built in 1812 by Danish-born architect Theophil Hansen, whose design was inspired by elements of the High Renaissance and classical antiquity.

The concert hall has a relatively small rectangular shape, a rich plaster decoration, and high ceilings featuring allegorical paintings. Crenellated, gilt-edge balconies surround the space. Sound naturally bounces off many different planes and angles, contributing to the radiant sound that envelopes its audiences.

Since the first concert in 1870, musicians and architects alike have marveled at the success of the sound achieved by the hall, as Hansen’s opulent design was based on intuition, rather than scientific theory.

Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (1888)

Inside of a concert hall with red stadium seating and gold wall detailing.

After its inaugural concert in 1888, Concertgebouw in Amsterdam has remained one of the most respected and the most visited halls in the world. The science of acoustics was still a large mystery at the time the hall was under construction, and there wasn’t even a real plan in place for the acoustics. Instead, it was modeled after other successful examples such as the Felix Meritis building in Amsterdam and the Gewandhaus in Germany.

Though the hall’s acoustics were initially a pain point, the problems were gradually resolved between 1895 and 1900. In 1899, orchestral balance was improved when the orchestra platform was rebuilt to reduce the steepness of its risers.

Boston Symphony Hall, Boston (1900)

Interior of Boston Symphony Hall.

Built for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1900, Boston Symphony Hall remains one of the world’s top venues for classical music. It is one of the first to be designed according to scientific theory; before this time, developers had little knowledge of how sound reverberated inside a building. Modeled after the Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig, Germany, physics professor Wallace Clement Sabine created a mathematical formula to help predict the reverberation time before the building was constructed. The ideal time, 1.9 to 2.1 seconds, was successfully achieved when the hall was built.

The walls, ceiling, and floor all slope inward to project sound into the audience, and the space between rows of seats was kept to an optimal five inches apart. The hall delivers the perfect balance between the science of acoustics and the beauty of classical motifs, featuring a coffered ceiling, columns, and leather seats. The sixteen replicas of Greek and Roman statues placed throughout the niches serve as a nod to the phrase, “Boston, the Athens of America,” which was written by William Tudor in the early 19th century.

Opera City Concert Hall, Tokyo (1997)

long tower building in Tokyo with blue sky behind.

Like that of many traditional European halls, Tokyo’s esteemed concert hall was designed in the “shoebox style,” characterized by rectilinear, orthogonal shapes and regular horizontal rows of windows or glass walls. Envisioned by audio pioneer Leo Branek and architect Takahiko Yanagisawa, the two worked to create a space that achieves the effect of being in a much larger performing arts venue, without the use of electronic speakers.

The ceiling and walls are made of solid oak, where carefully angled grooves diffract and reflect sound that bounces between surfaces high above the audience. Rear walls have finer, irregular grooving which scatters and diffuses high frequencies, reducing “acoustical glare” from smooth, shiny surfaces. A stunning vaulted pyramidal ceiling and upper lighting evokes a sense of tranquility while supporting the science behind the venue’s acoustic structure. The Opera City Concert Hall officially opened in 1997.

Philharmonie de Paris, France (2015)

Interior of the Philharmonie in Paris with curved seating.

A shining example of modern acoustic engineering, the Philharmonie de Paris opened in January of 2015. The vision of French architect Jean Nouvel and Marshall Day Acoustics, the team meticulously designed every surface to provide reflections that enhance the acoustics for the audience, including the walls and balconies which form sweeping curves and the clouds of panels that hang from the ceiling.

Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg (2017)

big glass building on the water with a curving rooftop.

Perhaps one of the best representations of perfect sound, this visually-stunning concert hall was completed in January of 2017 after years of construction. Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron worked alongside famed acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota and ONE TO ONE studio to create a massive auditorium that promises to have the same experience at each of its 2,150 seats.

The design uses advanced sound algorithms, released by coral reef-like structures of more than 10,000 acoustic panels lining the ceiling, walls, and balustrades. It features a total of one million “cells,” or divots, designed to shape the sound. When the sound hits a panel, the uneven surface either absorbs or scatters it to create a balanced reverberation across the auditorium. Aside from the impressive audio experience, the design is equally stunning, with 1,000 hand-blown glass light bulbs that emphasize the futuristic feel of the wave-shaped facade.

As musical instruments and the performing arts have evolved, so too has the experience of the concert-goer. Since the early days of 17th-century concert hall construction, architectural design has changed significantly. Many earlier examples were either built on trial-and-error or worked to replicate an existing, successful model. Due to technological advancements and improvements in acoustics, today we have a better understanding of the way sound behaves, and how this has afforded music enthusiasts a chance to hear shows in elaborately designed, nearly sound-perfect venues.

Sources: ScienceDaily | HiConsumption | Knops | The Guardian | Harman | Conscious Lifestyle | The Spaces