The acoustical achievement of Greek theatres seems almost miraculous. On a still day, someone can stand in the orchestra at Epidaurus, draw in a breath and sigh, and it can be heard on the back row—of a theatre that held more than 10,000 people.

It seems generally agreed that the design of these theatres evolved from the threshing floors where villages celebrated the harvest with a festival and gave thanks to Dionysus and other gods. The 1959 photograph above is of husband and wife working on a village threshing-floor in Arcadia. Note the incline of the encircling hill.

Theories have been advanced, but it is unclear how far the actual dimensions of the theatres—similar all over the Greek world— were decided with acoustics in mind.

What about enclosed spaces? The acoustics of them seems to have been hit-and-miss until relatively modern times. For example, the Royal Albert Hall had so bad an echo before 1969 that people said you got two concerts for the price of one. Then the mushroom-shaped acoustic diffusers were hung from the ceiling, and the sound was transformed. These were upgraded, with further improvement, in 2001.

Acoustical engineering seems to have taken off in the twentieth century after the success of the Symphony Hall in Boston, which opened in 1900. The architects had realised that a physicist might help with acoustics, and so Professor Wallace Clement Sabine of Harvard was asked to be a consultant. His calculations before the building began proved to be accurate, and Symphony Hall remains one of the best concert halls acoustically, as well as one of the most beautiful.

Musicians sometimes need to adapt their performance to a building of unfamiliar acoustic. Some years ago the Chapel Clerk at King’s College Cambridge told how Ely Cathedral choir paid a visit to sing, and, he said, ‘nearly lifted the roof off.’ They were used to singing into that enormous Gothic space out on the Fens, whereas in King’s Chapel a more gentle sound is needed.

Of interest:

  • Henry Miller’s description of Epidaurus in The Colossus of Maroussi, Penguin, pp.80-89.
  • The remains of the theatre at Megalopolis, which Pausanias says was the largest in Greece.

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