Acoustics
Indoor climate and well-being

Top 5 Concert Halls for the Best Classical Music Experience

Pascal van Dort
22 June 2022

Nowadays, we enjoy classical music in a live music atmosphere in a concert hall or symphony hall. They are tailored to the music and shaped with optimised acoustic conditions so we can experience the classical music in full. But do you know it wasn’t always like that?

musicians playing music in concert halls

Classical music’s popularity grew throughout the 18th and 19th centuries when musicians blossomed in composing orchestral masterpieces. We can divide different eras.

Baroque period 1600-1750 Bach, Antonio Vivaldi
Classical period 1750-1820 Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert
Romantic period 1820-1900 Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Chopin

The composers recognized the importance of the acoustics in a room or space. They thought about how the sound would bounce around in the room and how it would affect how people heard the music. This led them to compose music specifically for each individual room, instead of finding a room that would fit the piece of music.  

A great example is “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" [1], written by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is a musical composition played on an organ, which is ideal for a cathedral with an average reverberation time of 5 seconds.  

On the other hand, it was Mozart who composed music to be played in highly furnished chambers. Many of the operas he wrote are performed best in rooms with a reverberation time of 1,00-1,30 seconds. [2]  

So why didn’t they start designing rooms and concert halls with optimal room acoustics? Because the science of acoustics was still considered a mysterious combination of many different and undefinable factors. But that all changed at the end of the 19th century.

A young American assistent professor of physics, named Wallace Clement Sabine, was asked to address an acoustic difficulty in the newly constructed Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University. 

Using a simple stopwatch, Sabine tested the acoustics of the lecture hall. To create the equation for reverberation time, he utilised sound and several number of seat cushions. He was the first to consider the materials in a concert or lecture hall and “translate” them into sound absorption. Prior to Sabine, architects and designers purely worked on intuition.  

Reverberation is desirable for the enjoyment of music. This is because it enhances the direct sound and adds fullness, warmth, and cohesion to the piece.  

As such, the reverberation time of a venue is one of the most important acoustic parameters. It affects listener perception and enjoyment of the music. [3] [4]  

Due to the important effect of reverberation on music perception, reverberation time has become a critical acoustic parameter in venue design. Longer reverberation generally accentuates music but can cause speech to be muddled.  

For concert halls, musicians will often refer to a reverberant space as being very “live”. If there is not very much sound reverberation, a hall may be referred to as being “dead”. So, the recommended reverberation time range is very wide. This is because optimal reverberation time varies based on musical setting, style, tempo, and other inherent aspects of the music.   

For music with lyrical content, listeners prefer moderate reverberation times of approximately 1 second. For music without lyrical content, longer reverberation times are generally preferred for classical, romantic, and modern music. The preferred reverberation time varied from approximately 1.5 to 2.1 seconds. The preferred reverberation time for some classical orchestral music varies from approximately 2 to 3 seconds. [5] 

The Norwegian standard NS 8178:2014 gives a good overview of preferred reverberation times in relation to music. 

Reverberation time comparison between different types of instruments

Reverberation time (mid frequencies) as a function of volume for performance spaces (NS 8178:2014)

Through the centuries, the demand for concert halls suitable for dynamic performances of classical masterpieces grew simultaneously. And with that, also the knowledge of room acoustics.  

The focus on reverberation time has changed over time. Other acoustic factors are now considered to create the best acoustic environment indoors. They include:  

  • Sound Strength, G (dB)  
  • Early Decay Time, EDT (s)  
  • Clarity, C80 (dB)  
  • Definition, D50  
  • Centre Time, Ts (ms)  
  • Lateral Energy Fraction (LF)   
  • Late Lateral Sound Level, LG (dB)  
  • Early Support, ST (dB)  
  • Late Support, ST (dB)  

With these parameters, concert hall acoustics now include important subjective attributes like: fullness of tone, resonance, intimacy, liveliness, spaciousness, warmth, loudness, and timbre.

Concert hall acoustics are multidimensional, and a truly great concert hall will achieve highly in each of these categories. It makes you feel that you are inside the music rather than a remote observer of it. You should be bathed in sound from all directions, though still able to localize where the sound is coming from.  

Designing a concert hall is a science in itself. Echoes, flutter echoes, sound focusing, sound shadows, and background noise should be avoided. It’s about having a perfect balance of reflection, diffusion, and absorption. Some important factors that affect concert hall acoustics are materials used, size, and shape.  

There are only a few shapes that serve as a starting point for the design of a concert hall. The most typical tend to be shoebox, fan-shaped, vineyard, and even horseshoe. The shoebox shape is simply a rectangular room, typically with some balconies.  

Fan-shaped rooms are perhaps the most common. They are able to accommodate a large number of attendants while keeping a frontal view of the performers. Vineyard concert halls are named this way because the seating sections resemble the slopes of a vineyard.

Here are 5 concert halls that showcase the best classical music experience over the past 150 years. 

Concert hall floor plans

Concert hall floor plans (to scale)

Royal Albert Hall, London, England

Year of Opening 1871
Seating Capacity 5098
Room Volume 86650m3
 
Reverberation Time (mid frequencies)  
Unoccupied 3.1 seconds [6] 
Occupied 2.4 seconds [6]

Image credit goes to Royal Albert Hall by John Salmon

Exterior Royal Albert Hall, concert hall, London

The Royal Albert Hall underwent numerous modifications between 1871 and 1968 in an effort to reduce the echo that reverberated throughout the auditorium, with little success. In 1968, the Acoustical Investigation Research Organisation Limited surveyed the acoustics in the hall with several tests. On their advice, 135 'flying saucers’ filled with mineral fibre wool were suspended above the arena to diffuse the reverberations.

Interior Royal Albert Hall, concert hall, London

There was one final tweak in 1996, after Dutch acoustical consultant Peutz & Associates conducted experiments on a 1:12 scale. They determined that a reconfiguration and removal of some of the current "mushrooms" would drastically improve the sound quality. The reconfiguration was completed at the end of 2001, condemning the hall’s negative acoustics to history. [7]  

The hall is still a reverberant space. Which is not necessarily bad, as music with organ and community singers really benefits from that.  

Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Year of Opening 1888 
Seating Capacity 2037
Room Volume 18780 m3
 
Reverberation Time (mid frequencies)  
Unoccupied 2.6 seconds [8] 
Occupied 2.1 seconds [8]

 

Exterior The Royal Concertgebouw, concert hall, Amsterdam, 1902

The Concertgebouw was designed by Adolf Leonard van Gendt. It was constructed in Amsterdam to serve as the home of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Construction began in 1883 and continued until the building’s completion in 1886. Van Gendt was also inspired by Classical architecture, leading him to design the Concertgebouw in a Neoclassical style.  

The architect always listened carefully to his clients' wishes when it came to designing large halls, like the Concertgebouw. However, he never fully explained his acoustic approach. Architectural acoustics was not a developed field at that time. For guidance, he relied on existing structures like the Gewandhaus Leipzig, which he visited with his client in 1883.

The Royal Concertgebouw, concert hall, Amsterdam

The 'shoe box' was an intuitive concert hall design. It was created without any acoustic advice, which proved to be excellent and was therefore followed. The side balconies generate optimal lateral reflections in terms of direction and decay.

In the original design, Van Gendt had designed a flat ceiling. However, the consultants thought that this would be detrimental to the acoustics. That is why a cassette ceiling was ultimately chosen. Even today, the Concertgebouw is recognised as having one of the world's best acoustics.  

Berliner Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany

Year of Opening 1963 
Seating Capacity 2440
Room Volume 21000 m3
 
Reverberation Time (mid frequencies)  
Unoccupied 2.2 seconds [9] 
Occupied 1.9 seconds [9]

 

Interior Philharmonie Berlin, concert hall

Unlike in traditional concert halls, the orchestra at the Philharmonie sits in the middle of the space, surrounded by the audience. There are even seats behind the orchestra where you can see the conductor’s face. The rows of seats are arranged into terraces.  

The Berlin Philharmonie was one of the first concert halls to adopt this "vineyard style" configuration. It was architect Hans Scharoun that wanted to have the “music in the center”. He enlisted the help of Lothar Cremer, an acoustics expert in creating this design. Thanks to the folded walls and the pyramidal-shaped sound-absorbing ceiling units, each of the maximum 2440 music lovers gets the perfect sonic experience.

Exterior Philharmonie Berlin, concert hall, Chamber music hall

: Credit goes to A.Savin (WikiCommons), FAL, via Wikimedia Commons

Even from outside, the shimmering gold Philharmonie is an exceptional sight. Architect Scharoun, an advocate of organic modernism, built the concert hall from the inside out a design that proved highly controversial. In particular, when the Philharmonie was opened in 1963, the tent-like roof was exposed to shame. Soon, the concert hall got the nickname “Circus Karajani” after then principal conductor Herbert von Karajan.

Over the years, the concert hall has become one of the important landmarks of Berlin. With an unmatched architecture in both exterior and interior, Berliner Philharmonie became one of the finest concert halls in the world. 

Philharmonie de Paris, Paris, France

Year of Opening 2015 
Seating Capacity 2400
Room Volume 37700 m3
 
Reverberation Time (mid frequencies)  
Unoccupied 3.1 seconds [10] 
Occupied 2.6 seconds [10]

 

Philharmonie de Paris, Paris, France

The Philharmonie de Paris (French pronunciation) is a €386 million building designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel. The facility houses exhibition spaces, rehearsal rooms, and a library. At the core of this set of spaces is the symphonic concert hall of 2400 seats, known as the Grande Salle.

Two experts in acoustic design, Marshall Day Acoustics from New Zealand and Nagata Acoustics from Japan, worked together to create this immersive space. They made sure the room acoustics were perfect and that the scale model study was accurate. 

The concert hall follows a modern, complex architectural form, away from conventional concert hall shapes like a shoebox or vineyard. The highly technical design brief included the requirement to provide "high clarity with ample reverberation'', two conventionally incompatible elements. [11]   

Philharmonie de Paris (9)

Another acoustical feat comes with the successful soundproofing of the hall against the busy surroundings of the ring road of Paris. This is possible due to the “box in box” approach with space between the walls.   

The hall was opened on January 14, 2015, three years after it was originally due to be completed. The opening concert was attended by François Hollande, the President of France. However, Jean Nouvel did not attend because of an ongoing dispute about the final costs and date of the building's completion. [12]

The Philharmonie de Paris is a shining example of contemporary architecture at its best. It has a concert hall that breathes an intimate and beautiful sound for musicians and music lovers.  

NOSPR Katowice Concert Hall, Katowice, Poland

Year of Opening 2014
Seating Capacity 1800
Room Volume 22000 m3
 
Reverberation Time (mid frequencies)  
Unoccupied 2.3 seconds [13] 
Occupied 2.1 seconds [13]

 

NOSPR Katowice Concert Hall

Katowice is a city in the south of Poland with a rich history. It’s most famous as a mining town, but lately it’s on the rise as the City of Music. In 2014, the city opened the NOSPR Katowice Concert Hall, which has architecture that reflects the culture of the entire region. 

The concert hall seats 1800 people and was built on the site of a former coal mine. It is the headquarters of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Next to the hall, it includes a chamber hall, rehearsal rooms and even a small hotel.

case study, nospr, theater, katowice

The Japanese acoustic master Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics was in charge of the acoustics of the hall. The design of the main concert hall used the traditional shoe-box configuration with some integrated vineyard elements. The result is a true masterpiece with superb acoustics. The hall acts like an instrument that creates a wonderful warm, round sound.

What makes the Katowice Concert Hall unique is the state-of-the-art recording studio that is connected to both the chamber hall and the concert hall. According to many experts, it is one of the most modern concert halls in Europe.

Sources:  

[1] Kästner H & Lehotka G, album: Bach, J.S.: Organ Music-Preludes and Fugues- Toccata and Fugue in D Minor-Chorale Preludes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ho9rZjlsyYY  

[2] Meyer J, book “Acoustics and the Performance of Music”, Springer Science & Business Media, 10 oktober 2009  

[3] Giménez A., Cibrián R. M., Cerdá S. (2012) Subjective assessment of concert halls: A common vocabulary for music lovers and acousticians. Archives of Acoustics 37(3): 331–340. DOI: 10.2478/v10168-012-0042-3  

[4] Lokki T., Pätynen J., Kuusinen A., Tervo S. (2012) Disentangling preference ratings of concert hall acoustics using subjective sensory profiles. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 132(5): 3148–3161.  

[5] Reinhart, P. N., & Souza, P. E. (2018). Effects of Varying Reverberation on Music Perception for Young Normal-Hearing and Old Hearing-Impaired Listeners. Trends in hearing, vol. 22  

[6] Book “Auditorium Acoustics and Architectural Design”, by Michael Barron (first edition 1993)  

[7] Royal Albert Hall, Williams J (2017), “From the Archives: Acoustic Mushrooms and the Royal Albert Hall Echo, 1969”  

[8] Vercammen M et al, “Concertgebouw Amsterdam: History of the main hall and its acoustics; PART 2: Preserving the acoustics”, keynote ISRA 2019  

[9] Book “How They Sound Concert and Opera Halls” by Leo Beranek (first edition 1996)  

[10] https://www.nagata-i.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/PhilharmonieDeParis_NAGATA.pdf  

[11] Auditoria 2022 Annual Showcase, “Meeting the Minds”, page 74-75  

[12] Paris Update, Hammond N, "Philharmonie de Paris-Concerted Sound in Disconcerting Hall," January 8, 2020.  

[13] https://www.nagata-i.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/NOSPR-Katowice_NAGATA.pdf