A look into the special process of designing a concert hall

Jun 24, 2024, 12:00 PM

Itzhak Perlman rehearses with the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oc...

Itzhak Perlman rehearses with the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. (Megan Nielsen/Deseret News)

(Megan Nielsen/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — From the outside, concert halls appear just to be fancy buildings. However, there is a lot more work that goes into their design. 

“There is so much involved in the design of a concert hall,” said Roger Jackson, a collaborating architect with FFKR. While FFKR is the architecture firm responsible for Abravanel Hall’s design, Jackson was not involved in the project. 

Designed with the orchestra in mind, concert halls are meant to highlight the sounds produced by an orchestra.  Jackson said that Abravanel Hall is a great example. 

In contrast, auditoriums and other mixed-use performance venues are built to suit several events. The list includes concerts, assemblies, and theater performances. 

“Is [Abravanel Hall] perfect? No. But, it’s really good,” said Jackson. 

Highlighting the performers and their sounds

The most important part of a concert hall’s design is the acoustics of the performance space. While the orchestra produces the sound, the space the musicians plan in can make or break their, and the audience’s, experience. 

“The very best concert halls are mostly, not always, but mostly, kind of shaped like a shoe box,” said Jackson. The shape allows each audience member a view of the performers.

Additionally, the shape can impact the way the music sounds. The goal of a well-designed concert hall is for the performers and their audiences to hear everything clearly. 

According to Jackson, creating a great listening experience can be challenging. He said that describing the desired acoustic effects with words can help architects do their jobs. 

For example, if a concert hall sounds “brilliant,” it means the room highlights higher-pitched tones. If a concert hall sounds warm, the lowest notes, or bass notes, are brought out. 

Additionally, the concert hall’s design must support musical clarity, meaning that every note can be heard clearly. 

“It’s sometimes tricky because … you hear the sound from the oboe and the violin at the same time and you want to hear it all,” said Jackson. “There are some concert halls and auditoriums where you only hear really good sound from the second violin or the percussion group because the sound isn’t blended and balanced.” 

Helping sound travel

The travel of sound is a critical element in creating the best possible listening experience. 

Jackson explained that sound produced by performers travels forward, into the audience first. Then, it bounces off the walls on the sides of the hall. 

Well-designed concert halls enable the sound to travel fast enough that the brain can combine the sound waves. 

“If you just hear [the sound] one time, that’s good. Our brains can patch it together unless the … difference between the direct sound and the reflected sound is too long,” said Jackson. “If it’s short enough, our brains can patch it together. If it’s too long then we hear an echo.” 

Within the “shoebox,” there are panels placed on the walls and ceiling. They further aid in the traveling sound. 

Benjamin Manis conducts the Utah Symphony at a rehearsal with Itzhak Perlman at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023.

The walls and ceiling of Abravanel Hall feature panels to help create a good listening experience. Benjamin Manis conducts the Utah Symphony at a rehearsal with Itzhak Perlman at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. (Megan Nielsen/Deseret News)

“In Abravanel Hall, there [are] these wood panels on the sidewalls,” said Jackson. They sit at an angle, not parallel, so that sound bounces correctly between them, preventing the unwanted echo. 

Additionally, Jackson said that the wall behind the musicians is often soft. Softer materials absorb more sound, further preventing echoes. 

“You don’t want the sound to come hit the back wall and bounce back and hit the performers,” said Jackson. “It’s all really kind of scientific and mathematic.”

Collaborating with an acoustician for concert hall design

While the design process can differ from project to project, Jackson said having an acoustical engineer to collaborate with early on in the project is helpful. 

“For instance, they could say oh don’t make it that shape, make it this shape, [or] make it this proportion,” said Jackson. 

Acoustical engineers study the manipulation of sound. 

Early on in the design process for Abravanel Hall, acoustician Cyril Harris was brought in to help. Jackson did not know exactly when. 

Harris was a well-known acoustical engineer. He also worked on the Metropolitan Opera House and New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, per the New York Times. 

“Cyril Harris was in very early in the design project and helped to set the bones for the architecture of the building,” said Jackson. 

Keeping good sounds in, bad sounds out

According to Jackson, the upholstery of the audience seats also matters in concert hall design.

When concert halls are completely full, the bodies of the audience members absorb sound. Choosing the right seat materials can also help absorb unnecessary sound.

“If [a seat] has a hard back, [the sound] will bounce back,” said Jackson. 

Additionally, concert halls must be insulated from the sounds of the outside world. 

“You have to make sure that you’re not getting noise leaked out or bad noise leaked in,” said Jackson. 

For example, audience members should not hear the sounds of the city outside of the concert hall. 

“That’s all really hard to do, too. There are specific engineers that…specialize in sound noise and vibration control because you have to really pay attention to it,” said Jackson. 

Related: Renovating Abravanel Hall “makes more sense,” petition organizer says

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A look into the special process of designing a concert hall