This week is the 150th anniversary of Vienna’s Musikverein, inaugurated on January 6, 1870. It was the first of a group of concert halls — followed by Leipzig’s second Gewandhaus, opened in 1884 (and destroyed in World War II), Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, from 1888, and, finally, Boston’s own Symphony Hall, unveiled in 1900 — setting acoustic standards that, for decades, newer halls were intended, and expected, to replicate. The halls’ exceptional sound has long been credited to their “shoebox” shape: long, rectangular rooms with straight walls. But explaining exactly why such halls sound the way they do has required subtle analysis.
Danish-born architect Theophil Hansen designed the Musikverein based on intuition and previous models. Symphony Hall’s design was similar; architects McKim, Mead, and White originally called for a semi-circular, Greek-inspired amphitheater, but, as Boston Symphony benefactor Henry Lee Higginson explained at the Hall’s opening, BSO directors insisted on “the shape of hall which had late been in vogue because successful.” But Symphony Hall also benefited from seminal acoustic research by Harvard physicist Wallace Clement Sabine.
Sabine largely based his acoustics on two factors: how long sounds reverberated in the hall, and how much the building’s materials — surfaces, seat cushions, carpeting — absorbed sound. Later research focused on the importance of lateral sound reflection, sound that reaches the listener after bouncing off a hall’s side walls. Combined with the direct sound from the stage, lateral reflections create the sense of rich, enveloping sound that shoebox halls exemplify. (Engineering lateral reflections became a goal of 20th-century concert-hall design, essentially trying to recreate shoebox-like acoustics in other, more varied spaces.)
Recent studies led by Finnish researchers Jukka Pätynen and Tapio Lokki further analyzed the effect of lateral reflections, showing how they emphasize higher-frequency sounds, making music’s tone sound more brilliant and its soft-to-loud dynamic range sound wider. Even the shape of the human head plays a part: the combination of direct and reflected sound boosts the volume of sound reaching our binaural ears, an effect strengthened in shoebox halls.
Still, such seemingly objective aesthetic qualities are, in fact, highly contingent. The development of European classical music can be heard as a gradual elaboration of the sound of the places in which it has been performed. It is, after all, music literally born in box-shaped buildings: churches, monasteries, oratories. Even as it moved into secular spaces, it still cultivated qualities best highlighted in shoebox halls — volume, dynamic range, timbral brilliance — while the halls aimed to further amplify those qualities. The prominence and prestige of venerable concert halls can obscure their specialization, with the venues attuned to a specific musical tradition. As the tradition embraces more eclectic inspiration, old halls either adapt or make way for spaces that flatter all kinds of music.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.