A royal night out: Learning about the physics behind acoustics


Here at the IOP we see physics as part of our culture and as something that everyone can enjoy, whether they’ve got a PhD in string theory or gave up the subject at school.

In our public engagement team we’re looking to explore physics through different lenses such as art, design, sport or music. Last November we partnered with the Tate Modern to explore light, dark and dark matter and last week we joined forces with the Royal Opera House to put on an event that discussed the art and science of theatre acoustics.

Together with the ROH we brought together opera singer Lesley Garrett with professor of acoustics Trevor Cox, sound engineer Paul Waton and director of acoustic design projects at Arup, Helen Butcher. The evening’s discussion was chaired by journalist and broadcaster Samira Ahmed.

By looking at the topic from a variety of viewpoints – performance, design and engineering – we gained a real insight into the care and attention that goes into ensuring a space creates the best experience possible for all those involved in a performance, as well as all the tensions that causes.

Trevor began the evening by outlining the difficulty he and his colleagues have when designing performance spaces – finding the sweet spot between reverberance and clarity. A reverberant (also known as wet) space is one in which sound lingers once the orchestra stops playing, giving a fuller richer sound. However for sung or spoken works, a dry space – one that is less reverberant, making it easier for the audience to distinguish lyrics or dialogue – might be more suitable.

But while the audience may have one acoustic preference, the performer or sound engineer’s preference may differ completely. For Paul, who often records large concerts that can involve a full orchestra, singers and multiple microphones, dry spaces are preferable. And while clarity is important, Lesley pointed out that spaces can also be too dry causing younger, less experienced singers to push their sound in order to compensate.

For Helen, who is working on the redevelopment of the ROH Linbury Theatre, these concerns are at the forefront of her mind. Acousticians can change or create spaces with different acoustic properties with clever design and by use of absorbent or reflecting materials. The new design for the Linbury creates a livelier, more acoustically-pleasing space by using timber surfaces to increase sound reflections and a shallow seating rake to decrease the absorbent effect of the audience.

The new Linbury will also feature electric-assisted resonance, which will add in additional resonance through a speaker system throughout the theatre. While controversial when this idea was first introduced, the advent of high definition digital sound has given audiences new expectations for live performances, and along with the improvement in this type of technology, these electronic systems can have a part to play in delivering the best experience possible.

Audiences themselves can alter the acoustic experience of a performance simply by choosing different seats in an auditorium. For listeners who prefer clarity sitting by a wall, which provides side reflections would be a good option, whereas audience members who prefer to be enveloped in the sound of an orchestra should choose a spot higher up and towards the centre, where they will receive sound reflections from all directions.

Ultimately good acoustics is about a marriage between the science and music. As Trevor said during the event: “The hall embellishes sound but musicians make it”. We hope that by the end of the evening our audience had a new appreciation for how music and physics can unite to create even better musical experiences.

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Manisha Lalloo

Manisha Lalloo

IOP public engagement manager
Manisha Lalloo

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