Music, Acoustics and Architecture, by Leo L. Beranek

October 1, 1963

Music, Acoustics and Architecture, by Leo L. Beranek; Foreword by Eugene Ormandy. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1962. [iv, 586 p., 8vo; $17.50]

Dr. Beranek is President of the largest acoustical consulting firm in the world. He has contributed significantly to the development and to the popular understanding and appreciation of the science of acoustics. Though his book represents an impressive amount of work, the wisdom of publishing it is to be questioned.

Music, Acoustics and Architecture contains an odd mixture of narrative, scientific exposition, and tabulation. It also contains editorial comment and thereby tends to diminish its standing as a scientific work. It contains much that is true, some that is new, and is in appearance magnificent. So a review must identify the useful sections and still find among them matters of disagreement.

First, the book presents a short, well illustrated, elementary review of the physical phenomena involved in architectural acoustics. Next, there is a chapter which deals with: the influence or effect of acoustics on composition and on musical qualities; acoustical settings for music of various styles; and acoustics and the performers. The chapter concludes by quoting a table of "the reverberation times preferred by a group of more than 100 musicians and sound engineers for various styles of music." Next, eighteen terms constituting a "vocabulary of subjective attributes of musical-acoustic quality" are listed and defined.

The reader is thus led by easy stages from the basic physics to the averaged preferences of people, then to the terminology defined by the author and employed throughout the rest of the book. This is a reasonable academic progression—from the objectively verifiable fact to the averaged subjective impression to the postulated definition. However, one cannot but feel after reading thus far that something is wrong somewhere. An often repeated gag is that an average is what a hen lays an egg on once a day. And any huckster knows that subjective evaluation can be anything the questioner wants it to be. If the argument of the book is to be based on averages, postulates, and the opinions of what would constitute a most atypical audience, it cannot withstand a practical test.

Next comes the really valuable part of the book: A study of fifty-four halls giving plan, section, structural details, photographs, measured acoustical characteristics, artists' evaluations, and music critics' judgments of each. No such compilation has ever been made before. Architectural texts will do well to follow Dr. Beranek's lead and publish acoustical details of the examples they cite. This section of the book adds an essential and heretofore missing element necessary really to know and understand many concert halls. Neither Kranich nor Theil, who have given us much detail on many concert halls and opera houses, have published acoustical data.

After the section on the fifty-four halls comes the consideration of those characteristics which make a good concert hall, based on the study just cited; and here we are in trouble again. It is concluded that there is an optimum size for concert halls, the size given being—in this reviewer's mind—too small to pay its own way in America if it houses a major symphony orchestra. It is thought best, however, because, according to the book's standards, many halls which musicians rate as good are small. It is further concluded that "widely spaced seats make the audience more comfortable but usually at the expense of acoustical quality." This didacticism might well confuse the unwary.

The fact that some people like small halls does not make it impossible to build a good big hall. In fact, it has been done, and right here in America. Uncomfortable seats, moreover, can easily subtract more from the pleasure of the total experience of attending a concert than could an acoustical deficiency, even if that were the alternative—which it isn't.

The next section, Chapters 7 through 13, undertakes to develop a mathematical system by which subjective evaluation (by musicians and critics) and objectively measured architectural and acoustical characteristics of halls may be expressed and applied to eight of the subjective attributes of musical-acoustical quality previously mentioned. This system is then employed to show how much of given physical characteristics it takes to make the perfect concert hall. Another table does the same for an opera house, except that the system requires in this case only seven attributes.

To be sure, Dr. Beranek takes the precaution of pointing out that "The numerical ratings are not precise in the sense that the measurement of the speed of light is precise, since the factors that make up the numerical scale derive from the aesthetic judgments expressed by the musicians and music critics in the interviews." Divergence of opinion is thus conceded. But no opinion by the person who paid for his tickets, who pays the bills, who comes to the concert only as a listener because he wants to enjoy the total cumulative impact of the music, is considered or even mentioned.

Next comes a section on how to design a concert hall and an opera house using the mathematical system developed in Chapters 7 to 13. Here we meet the surf board ceiling which has theoretical justification if the surf boards are big enough to reflect all of the frequencies which are wanted. In their original and simple form they did compensate for the acoustically impossible shape of the Kresge Auditorium and made it a tolerable structure.

Finally, there is the section which tells of the design of Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center, which music lovers and the sponsors of Lincoln Center fervently hoped would be the finest concert hall in the world. And this was indeed the goal.

No one seriously questions Dr. Beranek's capability of designing a fine concert hall, nor his sincere dedication to the task of making Philharmonic Hall the greatest; the book amply attests to both. I suggest however that the book itself contains a vital misconception. Dr. Beranek's design objectives were established on the basis of the judgment of people who must listen analytically. They must hear as the recording director hears in the control booth, as the conductor hears each true or sour note in the band rehearsal room, as the violinist wants to hear his own and the instrument next to him. For these people, what Dr. Beranek calls intimacy is paramount. The whole acoustical concept has been based on their professional requirements. But these people are the producers of the concert, not the consumers. And the consumers do not appear to enjoy occupying an oversized control booth or band rehearsal room.

The paying audience buys the total cumulative impact of the performance—the effect, not the mechanics. It values the artistry more than the technical precision through which that artistry is achieved. Erich Leinsdorf is reported as commenting, "As a performer I feel at home in the hall and so does my orchestra, but I have not heard a single concert in the hall and so cannot speak as a listener."

The book concludes with measured data on acoustical characteristics of chairs, plus tables of acoustical and dimensional data on the concert halls and opera houses analyzed in an earlier chapter. These are worth having, and the previously presented detailed analyses of concert halls are important. I suggest that these two sections should have been published, but that the sections developing an approach to concert hall planning require rethinking and more critical study.

4576 Last modified on November 15, 2018