March 26, 2007

How Greek theaters filter out noise

Excerpt from Nature story:
The wonderful acoustics for which the ancient Greek theatre of Epidaurus is renowned may come from exploiting complex acoustic physics, new research shows.

The theatre, discovered under a layer of earth on the Peloponnese peninsula in 1881 and excavated, has the classic semicircular shape of a Greek amphitheatre, with 34 rows of stone seats (to which the Romans added a further 21).

Its acoustics are extraordinary: a performer standing on the open-air stage can be heard in the back rows almost 60 metres away. Architects and archaeologists have long speculated about what makes the sound transmit so well.

Now Nico Declercq and Cindy Dekeyser of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta say that the key is the arrangement of the stepped rows of seats. They calculate that this structure is perfectly shaped to act as an acoustic filter, suppressing low-frequency sound — the major component of background noise — while passing on the high frequencies of performers' voices1.

It's not clear whether this property comes from chance or design, Declercq says. But either way, he thinks that the Greeks and Romans appreciated that the acoustics at Epidaurus were something special, and copied them elsewhere.


In the first century BC the Roman authority on architecture, Vitruvius, implied that his predecessors knew very well how to design a theatre to emphasize the human voice. "By the rules of mathematics and the method of music," he wrote, "they sought to make the voices from the stage rise more clearly and sweetly to the spectators' ears... by the arrangement of theatres in accordance with the science of harmony, the ancients increased the power of the voice."

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