Why Some Concert Halls Sound Better Than Others

The Philharmonie in Berlin // GUNDULA FRIESE/AFP/Getty Images
The Philharmonie in Berlin // GUNDULA FRIESE/AFP/Getty Images / The Philharmonie in Berlin // GUNDULA FRIESE/AFP/Getty Images

A new study suggests that the kind of concert hall you go to could have a significant impact on how the music makes you feel. Research in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America finds that people are more emotionally touched by a symphony in a rectangular concert hall than in one built in another shape. 

“Because the acoustic properties depend heavily on the room geometries and materials, the sound in the included concert halls varies greatly from each other,” the researchers, from Aalto University in Finland, write.

As part of the study, 27 volunteers listened in a sound booth to part of Beethoven's 7th symphony recorded in six different concert halls across Europe (with two versions of the audio recorded in different places in each hall), then detailed which one they felt had the most impact on them. The sound system in the room was designed to mimic the exact acoustics of these concert halls, through a 24-channel surround sound system. During the listening period, researchers measured the volunteers’ skin conductance, an indicator of arousal. 

Inside the Musikverein in Vienna. Image credit: Clemens Pfeiffer, A-1190 Wien via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The researchers found that listeners were most moved by music from Vienna’s Musikverein hall and the Konzerthaus Berlin. Almost all of the top-ranked halls found in the study are rectangular, which previous research has found enhances music due to the way it directs sound toward listeners’ ears. “Both experiments suggest together that the acoustics provided by the included shoebox-type rooms provide significantly higher emotional impact,” they write.

They also found that where you’re sitting in the concert hall matters. People generally rated recordings from the front of concert halls as more intense than those recorded farther back (i.e., the cheap seats).

However, because of the way sound bounces off different geometries, this wasn’t always the case. Recordings from the Berlin Philharmonie were rated more highly the farther back from the orchestra they were taken, meaning that in some places, the most expensive tickets don't necessarily offer the best experience.

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.