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Carnegie Hall’s Legendary Acoustics

In his 2010 book, The Acoustics of Performance Halls: Spaces for Music from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl, J. Christopher Jaffe—a leading acoustician, engineer, and architectural consultant—referred to Carnegie Hall as “the acoustic crown jewel of American concert halls.” Artists and audiences have benefited from the Hall’s legendary acoustics for more than a century. One popular quote is from Isaac Stern, who claimed, “Everywhere in the world, music enhances a hall, with one exception—Carnegie Hall enhances the music.” In her 1967 memoir, Too Strong for Fantasy, music critic (and daughter of soprano Alma Gluck) Marcia Davenport, referring to her favorite seat in the Second Tier, wrote, “Carnegie Hall is glorious, but nowhere else in the old house is the sonority so total, the instruments, together or individually, so brilliant and penetrating. The sound comes out of the walls and surrounds one like a cloak.” 

How?

Just how did Carnegie Hall end up with such astounding acoustics?

At Andrew Carnegie’s request, William Burnet Tuthill—Carnegie Hall’s architect, who was also a gifted amateur cellist—toured Europe and studied various concert halls famous for their acoustics. He also consulted with architect Dankmar Adler (of the Chicago firm Adler and Sullivan), who was responsible for Chicago’s Auditorium Building, which was completed in 1889 and immediately became known for its superb acoustics.

Keeping It Simple

Tuthill deliberately chose to keep the Hall’s styling and decorative elements simple, elegant, and functional, focusing his energies on creating an excellent acoustic environment. Drawing on his findings—and, in some cases, his own intuition—he strove for simplicity and eliminated common theatrical features like heavy curtains, frescoed walls, and chandeliers that could impair good sound distribution. Carnegie Hall’s smooth interior, elliptical shape, slightly extended stage, and domed ceiling help project soft and loud tones alike to any location in the Hall with equal clarity and richness.

If It Ain’t Broke

At various times over the decades, curtains, backdrops, and panels have been added to the stage area, affecting the sound. These items have since been removed, and today audiences experience the Hall’s sound as Tuthill intended them to. This means that notes produced by even the softest striking of a piano key or the gentlest stroking of a violin bow across a string on stage can be heard with total clarity in the back row of the Balcony.

 

Photography courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.