From reverberating chaos to concert halls, good acoustics is culturally subjective

Credit: Wikipedia.

Play a flute in Carnegie Hall, and the tone will resonate and fill the space. Play that same flute in the Grand Canyon, and the sound waves will crash against the rock walls, folding back in on each other in sonic chaos. The disparity in acoustics is clear - to the modern listener, the instrument belongs in an auditorium.

"Distinct echoes would be totally unforgivable in today's performance spaces," says Steven J. Waller, an archaeo-acoustician who has studied prehistoric rock art and the acoustics of ancient performance spaces. "But, in the past, people sought echoes."

According to Waller, the response of audiences and performers to acoustic characteristics is a function of their worldview, and it is as fluid as the environment they inhabit. He will be presenting his findings this week at the 169th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) in Pittsburgh.

"It's a parallel to 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder': perfect performance spaces are really in the ear of the listener. Today we value qualities like clarity—how it makes a modern orchestra sound," Waller continued, "whereas prior to sound wave theory, echoes were considered mysterious and divine."

Myths About The Origins of Echo

While far from unique, the most famous origins myth is perhaps from Ovid's Metamorphoses, which tells the tragedy of Echo, a young nymph who disappears from the world except for her voice after she is spurned by her would-be lover, the young Narcissus, who falls in love with his own reflection instead. Over the past 28 years, Waller has collected more than fifty echo myths, and several hundred pertaining to thunder gods, from a swath of cultures spanning every inhabited continent.

According to Waller, a common current runs through many of these myths. A spirit living behind the rock surface, often as form of punishment, calls out to passersby to trap them within the walls as well. Not by coincidence, the same indigenous groups often left their paintings, petroglyphs and artifacts at locations within cavernous sites that helped to generate the strongest echoes.

"Some of the earliest flutes in the caves of Germany were found in very reverberant environments in the cave," Waller said. "It wasn't just a matter of 'well, they happened to drop a flute there.' The places where they used the flutes had these fabulous echoes and thunderous reverberations."

To measure the acoustics of those areas, Waller employed a spring-loaded device that emits a consistent percussive sound. He used portable digital recorders and audio software to quantify the acoustic strength of any "extra" reflected sounds.

"When you put all of that together, it forms a picture of our ancestors valuing sound reflection, and seeking it out, and in some cases even worshipping it," Waller said. "They not only had myths about it, they also responded with paintings and engravings."

In the migration story of the Native American Acoma tribe, Masewa, the "son of the Sun," led his people out of their place of emergence, heading for a place called "Aako." As they travelled, Masewa tested each area they came upon by shouting out, "Aaaaaaakoooooo!" If the echo resounded, the people would stay to test the place further; if it proved to be imperfect, they moved on. At a place just east of the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, where they eventually settled, the echo was perfect, and there now stands Petroglyph National Monument, hosting an estimated 24,000 pecked, or lightly inscribed, images. The site's strong echoes were music to ancient ears, though perhaps cacophonous to ours.

Explore further

Ancient auditory illusions reflected in prehistoric art?

More information: Presentation #5aMU2, "'Good acoustics' is culturally determined: Evidence that prehistoric performance space selection was based on different world views" by Steven J. Waller, will take place on Friday, May 22, 2015, at 8:55 AM in the Kings 4 room at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown Hotel. The abstract can be found by searching for the presentation number here:
Citation: From reverberating chaos to concert halls, good acoustics is culturally subjective (2015, May 22) retrieved 23 October 2019 from
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May 22, 2015
Acoustics are a partly a matter of taste, but mostly dependent on the actual music being played. Only the classical school tends to think it isn't, and embrace the 2 second reverb acoustics.

The 2 secs reverb works well in orchestral environments. Strings, voices, copper and woodwinds usually sound more rich when the same tone reverberates back, but in faster staccato pieces you will already start noticing the 2 sec reverb starts to clutter and overlap tones that shouldn't be.

Nowadays music producers have precise control over reverb they can assign to individual instruments and aren't hindered by the environment. There you can see certain rules apply, again longer tones like vocals and strings put up with lengthy reverb, but short staccato sounds are usually more dry.

That said, there are trends. In the 80's when such effects were new it was good to put reverb on everything, in the 90's they did everything to avoid that sound, while in the 00's that slightly came back

May 22, 2015

So in ancient times music often consisted of just one instrument and until the Sumerian time -as far as we know- wasn't polyphonic. When a polyphonic passage (e.g. a chord) is reverbed too long, the chordsound will overlap the next chord in the composition and therefore cause cacophony.

Simply said, that music doesn't allow for a lengthy reverb.

That is different with monophonic music where a scale played actually becomes harmonious when a previous note overlaps the following note.

Even a nowadays producer would in that situation choose for lengthy reverb or even echo for such music to enhance the sound.

So trends and culture aside, it is mostly the mmusic itself that dictates the preferred acoustic environment be it artificially created or in a real room, hall or cave.

May 22, 2015
Agreed - this research seems to come from the same school of thought that holds all musical characteristics to be culturally subjective - even tonal consonance and dissonance (show me a culture that doesn't percieve a tritone as dissonant or octaves as equivalent and i'll eat my hat).

All in all, obviously there's cultural variation as to what's considered 'sonorous' but physiologically, octaves have zero inequivalence, fifths have minimal inequivalence, fourths slightly moreso, then thirds and so on... whether they're played polyphonically or just blended by echoes. The harmonic series is clearly rooted in objective physiology, and no amount of hastily improvised Javanese Slendro or Pelog can prove otherwise.

Moreover, echoes obviously have similar connotations for animist worldviews as image reflections on water surfaces - seeming boundaries between the corporeal and supernatural domains.

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