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Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

Posted November 15, 2017 9:55 AM by BestInShow
Pathfinder Tags: Epidaurus acoustics

Have you ever heard that Greek theaters, at least some of them, had such perfect acoustics that the audience could hear a word whispered from the orchestra all the way up in what we might now call the cheap seats? I’d read this claim. When our tour coordinator offered an excursion to Epidaurus, the best-preserved of all ancient Greek theaters, I whipped out my credit card and booked the trip.

The theater’s architect, Polykleitos the Younger, created an impressive structure that could hold between 13,000 and 14,000 spectators. The small surrounding territory of Epidauria is considered to be the birthplace of Apollo’s son Asclepius the Healer, the god of medicine. The area grew into the most revered place to go for cures for mortal ills. Over time the settlement grew to include extensive accommodations for pilgrims seeking health. In the fourth and third centuries BC, the prosperity brought by the shrine made construction of the theater possible. The structure is the best-preserved of extant ancient Greek theaters.

When we arrived at the theater, our tour guide suggested that we climb up to some of the higher tiers and listen while she made various noises from the orchestra center. She’d told us that the theater faces in the direction of the sea, so the sea breeze could help move sound toward the audience. According to two Georgia Tech researchers, the sea breeze had nothing to do with the acoustics; the limestone seats themselves perform the magic. The stone filters out low-frequency noise and reflects back the higher frequencies more typical of the human voice. The acoustical effect of thousands of human bodies sitting in those seats isn’t addressed, however.

When our guide demonstrated the acoustical magic, the effect wasn’t as advertised. Granted, my hearing isn’t what it used to be, but I wasn’t the only person disappointed. I’ve visited the whisper gallery in the US Capitol, and I’d hoped for something equally magical. I figured the fault was my perception and not the acoustics.

Just after our return, though, Mr. Best in Show read an article that debunked the myth of the Epidaurus theater’s perfect acoustics. Using techniques and equipment they developed themselves, a team from TU Eindhoven tested the acoustics of three Greek theaters, including Epidaurus, and proved conclusively that you can’t hear a whisper in the last row. The acoustics are very good, but not magic. These days the magic comes from performances that are held here, and in other ancient Greek theaters.

Photo credit: Flickr/Sharon Mollerus CC BY 2.0

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#1

Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/15/2017 10:22 AM

Hearing the performance as intended that far away without the modern wonders of microphones and loudspeakers, is still not short of wondrous.

What a beautiful place that is, and I hope you excursion availed you of local cuisine also.

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#2
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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/15/2017 11:46 AM

I actually enjoy outdoor type theaters... we have one similar where I grew up, Its actually in a barn like pavilion. I was there a few years ago, it is great experience.

And as far as 'Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect', that is what makes it an experience.

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#5
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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/15/2017 12:05 PM

Oh yes. Much local cuisine -- simple, honest, and drool-making. The tomatoes were unbelievable! And the olives, and the feta, and on and on ...

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#6
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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/15/2017 12:33 PM

OK. NOW I am hungry. Look out world, here I come for lunch!

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#3

Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/15/2017 11:49 AM

It stands to reason that a whisper could not be heard within the entire theater just from energy considerations. The kind of acoustics where a whisper can be heard remotely require specially shaped reflecting surface, e.g. elliptical, which reflect sound from one focus point to the other. This obviously works only between two points and not to an entire theater.

It's interesting that the Greeks did not know why their acoustics were so good. A lot of technology advances come not from theory but from trial and error or just plain luck. Only later do we figure out why it works.

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/15/2017 11:57 AM

The science of Acoustics is interesting.

Take the 'Whispering Gallery in Grand Central Terminal', where when two people stand at diagonal arches and whisper, they can hear each other's voices "telegraphed" from across the way.

There are other place like this, but it's interesting how sound can be telegraphed....

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#8
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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/16/2017 8:19 AM

I've had the pleasure of experiencing a whispering gallery in a place a bit closer to home for BestInShow and myself - the Corning Museum of Glass. Whispering Gallery

The first time experiencing the effect is quite stunning. TVs on, speakers blaring, crowds of people making all kind of noise. But the wife sat on one end and I at the other and we could hear each other perfectly fine just whispering.

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/16/2017 8:22 AM

Another reason to head to the Corning Museum, a place I've wanted to visit for years. Thanks for the info!

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#26
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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/22/2017 10:19 PM

Just finished reading a book on Leonardo daVinci, and I have to say more on trial and error.

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#7

Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/16/2017 8:11 AM

We have a pair of concrete elliptically backed benches in our park that are aimed toward each other and spaced about 60' apart where a low volume sound in one can be heard perfectly in the other. We need to come up with a curved hat for our head to get directional party conversations going across the room.

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#10
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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/16/2017 8:27 AM

I love the curved hat idea. When you're ready to market one let me know!

Your post reminded me that there's a similar spot on the Tanglewood grounds -- a good place to take restless kids during intermission (or during the concert if needs must).

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#25
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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/19/2017 4:43 PM

It's the idea behind the parabolic microphone...

Parabolic microphone used at an American college football game.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parabolic_microphone

You can buy one from Amazon...

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=parabolic+microphone

Or roll your own with a trash can lid.

Chuck Peters Tue, 02/25/2014 - 11:03pm

Supersonic DIY: You can record super sound from an ordinary microphone using a homemade parabolic reflector.

https://www.videomaker.com/article/f20/17144-how-to-build-a-parabolic-mic-dish

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#13
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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/16/2017 12:23 PM

You mean like this?

Is that the reincarnation of Admiral Lord Nelson?

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

12/08/2017 10:24 AM

No, he needs something more like this:

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#11

Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/16/2017 9:29 AM

There is an acting/speaking technique called a 'stage whisper', where the actor talks in a slightly less than normal volume voice, but adds a raspy effect to make it clear to the audience that he is 'whispering' some words to another actor.

Perhaps this is the 'whisper' that was intended.

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#12

Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/16/2017 11:34 AM

Dropping a pin on stage can be definitely be heard in the the rest of the hall of the Mormon Tabernacle in S.L.C., Utah. The balcony is also separated from the sloping sides of the elliptical ceiling by a few feet to allow sound to get by to the last rows of seats below at the back. You don't have to be Mormon to feel the building, in design and structure, was inspired. Brigham Young, the church president at that time, specified the design which he patterned on the shape of the roof of his mouth.

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#14
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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/16/2017 1:43 PM

Hence the minty smell. LOL.

Though I am not Mormon, I lived among them in Salt Lake City for about six years in graduate school. They make very clean and tidy neighbors.

While I actually never heard concert in the Tabernacle, I do love to hear their rendition of Handel's Messiah during Christmas season.

I heard one of my professor's (Henry Eyring) wife sing a part of The Messiah once during a noon recital, and for an older lady, she was still in excellent health, and could really belt it out, perfect in pitch and timbre. Her enunciation was so perfect that one could swear she was native English. I know Henry spent considerable time in Australia, but I fail to recall if he met her in that place.

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#15
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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/16/2017 2:02 PM

Hi JS, I also lived in SLC as a NON Mormon for a while in mid 60's. It is a beautiful city.

Side note... a friend and I snuck into the Tabernacle one day and I went on the podium to look at that beautiful organ. There was a biggish switch under the console which I switched on. The compressor motors started and the whole rig became ready to play...Which I did, "Chop-Sticks." We were most immediately escorted out with no kind words.

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/16/2017 2:29 PM

I am surprised that you did not receive a visit from "The Avenging Angels". Hypothetical Mormon Vigilantes.

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/16/2017 3:07 PM

I hope Hannes, our resident organist, reads this! What a great story! I can't imagine hearing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the Tabernacle. Wow.

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

12/08/2017 11:23 AM

"While I actually never heard concert in the Tabernacle, I do love to hear their rendition of Handel's Messiah during Christmas season."

Personally I like the inspired "singing" of these guys:

Halleluja Chorus while under a Vow of Silence (Youtube Link) (sound)

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

12/10/2017 9:32 AM

A lot depends on what oin is dropped on stage. Most clovis pins or lynch pins will not be difficult to hear if dropped on stage for most any accoustics.

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

12/10/2017 1:34 PM

clevis, linch

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

12/10/2017 3:15 PM

Well, yeah. Those too.

Thank you.

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

12/10/2017 5:04 PM

Those are perfect examples of what a spell checker can miss.

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

12/11/2017 3:27 AM

My spell checker has been disabled for a while now. Yeah, I know: it shows. I am hoping to regain what I have become unaccustomed to relying on spell checker.

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/17/2017 10:47 AM

I was always impressed with the natural acoustics at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado.

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/17/2017 11:01 AM

I have been there, but with my schedule no concert was scheduled. Its something I like to do.

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/17/2017 11:22 AM

I've heard of Red Rocks but never seen a picture, much less visited. Spectacular setting.

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/17/2017 10:51 AM

California's longest outdoor play, the Ramona festival is held in a bowl shaped amphitheatre. The cheapest seats are near the top and the farthest back. In these seats, the angle to the stage area is ( my approximation ) 0 degrees horizontal to ( - 20 ) , and the actors voices can be heard quite distinctly, without the use of Electronic amplification. Whereas the expensive seats, those closest to the stage are quieter, 0 degrees horizontal to ( + 40 ) .

Also when you sit in the cheapest seats, it gives you the best viewing arrangement and allows for less physical strain. Sitting up high provides a panorama view and affords the viewer a vertical field of vision of + 10* horizontal & - 20 * horizontal. This can be achieved by very little head movement and slightly more eye movement.

Sitting in the expensive seats concentrates the field of vision to a narrow angle, 15* , left & right and requires the spectator to move the head more to the left and the right and upwards to take in the whole arena, thus contributing to muscle strain.

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#22

Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/18/2017 6:32 AM

... “even a stage whisper could be picked up by the furthest spectator with the cheapest ticket.”...

The claim upon which this debunking was based was misunderstood.

A 'stage whisper' is not the same as a 'whispered word'. 'Stage whisper' is spoken loudly so that everyone can hear while clues are provided so the audience understands the actor is 'whispering'....breathy voice, hands shieldling lips from view of other actors, etc.

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#23
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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/18/2017 7:02 AM

I believe the stage whisper technique was explained in an earlier post.

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Re: Say It Isn't So! Greek Theater Acoustics Aren't Perfect

11/19/2017 8:12 AM

Indeed. My appologies to USBPort. The linked article does have quotes about debunking the myth that a 'stage whisper' could be heard from the cheapest seats, but then ignores the difference.

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