Lectures/Scripts/WritingsTelevision ScriptsYoung People's ConcertsThe Sound of a Hall

Young People's Concert

The Sound of a Hall

Written by Leonard Bernstein
Original CBS Television Network Broadcast Date: 21 November 1962


My dear young friends, welcome to Philharmonic Hall, the new home of the New York Philharmonic, here at Lincoln Center. You all know how exciting it is to move into a new home, especially when it has been built just for you; but it's also a little bit strange and scary - there are so many new things to get used to: as in a new house, your bed faces a different direction, and light-switches are never where you expect them to be, and there's somehow a whole other smell - of new wood and fresh paint and glue. Then you wonder, will I like the new look of it, the new colors; and is it strongly enough built? Well, in this house of ours, we've already grown used to the new atmosphere; it's a handsome hall, and we're pretty sure it's not going to fall down about our ears. But the thing we're most concerned about in this hall -- unlike an ordinary house -- is how it sounds.

That's the main thing in a concert hall; and I think that probably more time and work and thought has gone into planning the sound of this hall than into about anything else. Does that surprise you? A lot of people think that the sound of music in a hall depends only on how it's performed; if the orchestra plays well, the music will sound well -- which is certainly true, up to a certain point. But unless you have a hall that carries the orchestra's sound faithfully and clearly, the orchestra can play like angels, and you'll never know the difference.

Well, in this hall you should know the difference, because it has been scientifically planned to deliver the music to you in all its brilliance, fullness and clarity. Of course, with all the scientific planning in the world you can never be absolutely sure in advance of how the hall will sound; because this science, which is called acoustics, a-c-o-u-s-t-i-c-s, acoustics is a fairly new science, and so there's still a certain amount of guesswork involved, and you never really know how it's going to sound until opening night arrives, and even then it can surprise you by not sounding quite the way you expected it to. And that's exactly what did happen on our opening night; we were all a bit surprised. But Philharmonic Hall has one big advantage over the old halls, such as our beloved old Carnegie Hall, and that is that we can keep improving it.

You see, in the old days when they built a hall, whether the acoustics turned out well or badly you were stuck with them. That is the way it was going to sound forever. But this hall is, one might say, a "Flexible Flyer;" the acoustics are permanently changeable. Do you see this bank of clouds up here over our heads? Well, they can be raised or lowered, or tilted at different angles to project the music in different ways. Then all around behind the back of the stage there are empty spaces that can be opened or closed, left empty or filled with different materials. And ever since opening night, the experts have been working around the clock with all these different panels and sound chambers to make the acoustics better and better. And now we are going to let you judge for yourselves the results so far. Listen to the sound of Philharmonic Hall as we play for you one of the most brilliant pieces ever written, The Roman Carnival Overture by Berlioz.

How's that for sound? Do you approve? (ad lib) - I'm not asking this just to get a hand. I really want to know. To me up here on the podium it sounds perfectly marvelous, but then the podium is about the worst possible place from which to judge the sound of a hall, because it is right in the middle of the orchestra, so to speak. So I have to rely on your judgment. But, of course, if you are going to be judges, you really ought to know something of what you are listening for, in a scientific way, in this acoustics business; so I think we might have a little look into this new science called acoustics.

If it's a science, you must remember that although music is an art, it also has its scientific side. Music is sound, and sound is caused by vibrations, which send out waves that register on your receiving set, which is your two ears. Now that's already physics, isn't it -- vibrations, sound waves, receiving set, all that. But now remember that these waves of sound don't go only to your ears; they go in every direction, and they're either absorbed the way a blotter absorbs water, or they are reflected back, the way a mirror reflects light.

And that's where physics comes in; because this physical science of acoustics can decide how much sound is going to be absorbed, and how much reflected back; and it's that reflected sound, coming to your ears a split second after the first direct sound has hit your ears, that makes the acoustical difference between one hall and another. If that's too hard, let's see if I can make it clear by an example. For instance, when the trumpets play this one note, you are hearing two kinds of sound; the direct waves from the instrument, and then the reflection of those waves, bouncing off the walls and ceilings and finally reaching your ears a split second later. And this later sound, the reflected sound, is called reverberation. That's a hard word that you might confuse with the word echo; they're usually taken to mean the same thing, but they are really two different things.

If I yell (LOUD) "hello," and you then hear an answering (SOFT) "hello," you are hearing an echo; but if I yell (LOUD) "hello," and you then hear (SOFT) "o-o-o" dying away in the hall, then it's not echo, but reverberation. I'm sure you see the difference. The echo is the last thing in the world you want in a concert hall, because it would make a double image; you'd hear everything twice. But reverberation is great to have in a concert hall, because without it the music would sound dead and dull. You need that reverberation to put in what's called liveness. Look: I'll play the last chord of the Roman Carnival for you, as short and brittle as possible (PLAY); but if you listened closely you could hear the chord still lingering in the air for a second or two. We'll do it again, so you have a chance to listen. (PLAY AGAIN) You hear it? That's reverberation; and that's what gives that chord liveness, fullness, and richness.

But now comes the big question: how much reverberation should there be? How long should it last? It's easy to understand that the more reverberation there is, the live-er and richer and fuller the music will sound.

But if there's too much reverberation, the music will sound too full and too rich, and become unclear and muddy. And here's where the physics and mathematics come in. The acoustical scientists - or acousticians, as they're called - made a long, detailed study with special machines of all the best concert halls of the world, to try and find out what amount of reverberation there is in the halls where music sounds best. And they found that all the best halls have a reverberation time of around 2 seconds; that is, that's how long it takes the sound to die away in the hall. Two seconds, so that the music is juicy enough and clear enough.

And so this Philharmonic Hall was designed to have a reverberation time of 2 seconds. Now comes the million-dollar question: how in heaven do you command a hall to have an exact reverberation time of two seconds? (Well you can.) First of all, you can do it by controlling those areas of the hall that reflect or absorb the sound-waves (the walls, the ceiling, the floors, and so on) by carefully choosing what they are to be made of. For instance, concrete reflects more than wood, hard woods reflect more than soft woods, and so on. And cushy carpeting you walk on here doesn't reflect sounds at all, but absorbs it, as does the plushy upholstery you are sitting in. So all these things had to be balanced properly.

Then, of course, comes the design of the hall: how high the ceiling is, how wide it is, long it is, how wide the stage is, how deep it is. I won't go in to all the details for you now - that would take hours: let's just say that after much calculations and discussion between acousticians and architects and musicians and whatnot - they began finally to build the perfect hall - perfect at least in theory.

But they weren't content to rely only on theory: so last May, we had what they called a "tuning week" -- in which they tuned in this way the way a violinist tunes his instrument -- a whole week, day and night, with the Philharmonic playing on this stage under various conductors, and all kinds of music, big and little, old and new. In the hall, listening very hard, were specially invited conductors, acousticians, recording experts, broadcasting and [CAMERA SHOW] television experts -- plus a number of [CATHODE RAY TUBES], very sensitive mechanical instruments, [RECORDING HEAD], with very fancy names like an oscilloscope [GRAPHIC LEVEL] with cathode ray tubes, a binaural [RECORDER] recording head, a graphic level recorder, and lord knows what else. I tell you it was very spooky - just like science fiction movies.

Now all those ears, human and mechanical, were concentrating on every type of sound that came from the stage: electronic sounds made by special machines; canon shots and pistol shots, like this one (BANG), and especially of course, the sound of the orchestra.

The results showed our reverberation time very clearly: two seconds. But they also showed up a good number of faults. It turned out that this hall was far from perfect last May. First of all, there was not enough intimacy - that sense you should have out there of being really close to the music. So all kinds of experiments were tried: this whole bank of clouds was lowered even further, and then it was angled differently, so as to project the music better. Then various kinds of screens were set up around the stage to reflect the music out more toward the audience, and even canvas sails were hoisted around the stage to see what effect that would have. All this time, all those ears, human and mechanical, kept listening, listening.

Now let's see what all that scientific fooling around has accomplished. Have we finally got intimacy in this hall? Let's find out by hearing a quiet, intimate sound -- and old American lullaby called "The Little Horses" in a modern adaptation by Aaron Copland.

A charming sound, isn't it? I love this song, and I think you'll agree that as sung by Miss Verrett-Carter, in this hall, it had all the intimacy and quietness one could wish for. But intimacy was only one problem that was solved last May. There were lots of others. Perhaps the most interesting one was that fine sound we were listening to wasn't the same as the sound the hall would've had if it had been filled with an audience, actually, because the thing that absorbs sound waves even more than those cushy carpets and plushy upholstery is people! You! You are at this minute soaking up millions of sound waves in your skin and hair, and in your clothes. And so the acousticians had to find a way to fake a full hall. And this was done by putting in each seat a folded pad of yellow fiberglass. Every seat in the house. Yellow fiberglass that was scientifically calculated to absorb as much sound as an average human being does.

These pads were smilingly called "instant people;" and during that week we came to know them like dear old friends. Here comes an "instant person;" take a look. Isn't he sweet? And all week he sat out there where you are with his friends, the orchestra kept playing, the hall kept changing, and the ears kept listening and taking notes. And they have been listening ever since, while the scientists have been making adjustments, until the hall has been brought to the degree of liveness, warmth, and intimacy that you have been hearing today in the Berlioz Overture in Copland's song.

Okay, we have liveliness, warmth, and intimacy. But now, what about the problem of clarity? Clearness. You see, it's possible to get a hall to sound live and and warm, but that's no guarantee at all that it's going to sound clear. So, let's listen to another small piece that tests the clearness of our hall. The first movement of Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Solo Violins and Orchestra; and the acoustical problem this time is clarity, clearness -- to be able to hear the voice of each violin separately and clearly, and at the same time to feel the richness of their blend, along with the orchestra. So here comes a chance to test your own ears: see if you can hear the balance of clearness and richness, as we play the first movement of the Vivaldi Concerto in B Minor, with our own first four violins as soloists. Mr. Corigliano, Mr. Gullino, Mr. Bernsetin (no relation), and Mr. Dembinsky.

So far, so good. We've tested a lot of problems. But we haven't tested them all, by a long shot. That Vivaldi Concerto we just played is all strings, don't forget, -- violins, violas, cellos, bass. But now what happens when the sounds get mixed, and you have a cello playing with a flute, a saxophone, a drum, a trumpet, a clarinet, plus a speaking voice? That's the peculiar combination we're going to hear now; and the problem this time is blending. You see, all those different kinds of sounds have to reach your ears with the same strength, clarity, intimacy and so on, and they must combine together so that the weaving of sounds makes one texture, like a beautiful tapestry, or a Persian carpet. And this texture doesn't depend only on what the conductor and the players do; the stage must be designed so that every part and corner of it reflects the sounds we make with equal strength and clarity.

The texture also depends on where the orchestra is placed -- and this is very important -- the ability of the orchestra to hear itself well -- the ability of each player to hear all the other players clearly. Because unless the cello can hear the trumpet, and the drummer can hear the clarinet, and so on, the dangers of not playing exactly together are pretty great.

The piece we're going to hear now is a specially tough test in togetherness in this hall to pass, because the six instruments that will play it are scattered all over the stage: the cello is here on my left, the flute behind me, the clarinet behind him, the trumpet behind him, the saxophone to his right, and the drum way over there in the corner. And to make it all more difficult, I will be reciting the speaking part here, as well as conducting the players. So you can see that this is a real test of the acoustics on the stage. We'll have to hear one another absolutely clearly in order to be absolutely together. Now this peculiar piece we're going to do is from a suite called Facade, by the famous British composer Sir William Walton; and what it is a series of charming accompaniments by those six instruments to some very strange and amusing poems by Dame Edith Sitwell.

The one we're doing is a sort of Spanish number, part tango and part Paso-doble; and if you don't understand what the words mean, don't worry, because neither do I. But the trick is to hear every instrument clearly, as well as my tongue-twisting nonsense words. And to get some fun out of it, I hope. Here goes.

When Don Pasquito arrived at the seaside Where the donkey's hide tide brayed, he Saw the banditto Joe in a black cape Whose slack shape waved like the sea Thetis wrote a treatise noting wheat is silver like the sea; the lovely cheat is sweet as foam; Erotis notices that she Will Steal The Wheat King's luggage, like Babel Before the League of Nations grew So Joe put the luggage and the label In the pocket of Flo the Kangaroo. Through trees like rich hotels that bode Of dreamless ease fled she, Carrying the load and goading the road Through the marine scene to the sea. Don Pasquito, the road is eloping With your luggage, though heavy and large; You must follow and leave your moping Bride to my guidance and charge! When Don Pasquito returned from the road's end, Where vanilla-colored ladies ride From Sevilla, his mantilla'd bride and young friend Were forgetting their mentor and guide.

For the lady and her friend from Le Touquet In the very shady trees upon the sand Were plucking a white satin bouquet Of foam, while the sand's brassy band Blared in the wind. Don Pasquito Hid where the leaves drip with sweet.... But a word stung him like a mosquito.... For what they hear, they repeat!

Well, that little experiment seemed to work; we were all together. But you see, we are still making out test with little music, small combinations. But the one big thing left to test is what is called "dynamic range": in other words, does this hall respond equally well to all degrees of loudness within the same piece from a tiny murmur all the way to the whole orchestra going full blast? Well, the best test of dynamic range I can think of is that great piece of fireworks -- Tchaikowsky's Overture 1812, because it begins very intimately with only 6 solo strings, and then runs the whole dynamic range to a full orchestra, plus at the end, an extra brass band, (which will be playing over there), plus at the end the deafening roar of cannon back stage over there, plus the deafening jangle of church bells.

And if the house doesn't fall down about our ears at the end of this piece, and if you can still hear yourselves think, then you'll know we've got a great new hall, which luckily will and can become greater and greater as those ears keep listening and adjustments continue to be made. The experts think it may take as much as a full year of further experimentation before they arrive at the absolutely perfect hall; but meanwhile we have already got a marvelous hall, in which we can look forward to many more happy hours of exciting music. Now here is Tchaikowsky's Overture, 1812.


© 1962, Amberson Holdings LLC.
All rights reserved.

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