©1982 The Anstendig Institute

Revised 1984

(This is one of a series of papers on the problems of sound-reproduction, acoustics, and hearing. It is recommended that it be read together with “Sound Equalization in Relation To The Way We Perceive Sound”.)

Modern concert halls are designed to produce a sound quality that duplicates the faults of modern sound reproduction. Because most people, including the architects, become familiar with music through recordings, they expect the live music to sound the same as those recordings.

However, the assumption that modern sound reproduction accurately reflects the original sound event is false. Sound reproduction today has two major flaws. First, it is based on the wrong concept that stereophony is a duplication of the characteristics of the original sound source (which sound-reproduction should be) when, in reality, stereo is an illogical attempt to duplicate the way we hear (which is impossible).1 Secondly, the most important factor in reproducing the sound-quality of a “live” original, the equalization (i.e., the balance of the volume level of the frequencies in relation to each other), which must be the same in the reproduction as in the original, has been ignored.

In all sound-reproduction, the original frequency balance is changed (i.e., distorted) by the reproducing equipment, the acoustics of the listening room, and the peculiarities of human hearing.2 The body has to vibrate in sympathy with sounds before we can hear them. Because the body is most sensitive to the frequencies that become most exaggerated in the reproducing process, listening to unequalized sound-reproduction creates tensions that keep the listener from relaxing enough to hear the subtle nuances. The finer expressive content is not heard. Until recently, all record-playing components have added many serious distortions of their own. 

The basic characteristics of the distortions of unequalized recordings that are duplicated in concert halls are 1) a harsh "edgy" shrillness with a noticeable raspy, grating character to the "highs" (due to an exaggerated loudness of the high frequencies, particularly in the 2000 to 4000 hertz range), and 2) a thickness and blurring of sound textures (due to exaggeratedly loud overtones, especially in the range of the horn fundamentals and lower brass overtones, from about 200 to 1200 hertz). In concert halls, these distortions usually are due to and compounded by too many reflecting surfaces with too high a degree of reflectance, which result in sound reflections that are too loud. Evidently the trend towards listening to recordings at very loud volume levels has led the architects to attempt to make the halls louder by increasing the amount of reflected sound. But sound cannot be precisely reflected like light-waves in a mirror. The frequency balance (equalization) changes because some frequencies are reflected more strongly than others, and the manner in which the different frequencies radiate into the room is changed. When the reflected sound is too loud, the result is twofold: 1) multiple arrivals of the same sounds blur the sound, and 2) a predominance of overtones blurs the sound even more.

Many superimpositions of the same picture that do not lie exactly on top of each other obviously blur the picture and destroy the fine details. Multiple arrivals of the same sound have a similar effect on music. The overtones of a correctly produced sound in a good acoustical environment are just loud enough to give the sound its certain characteristic coloring without being consciously heard. Composers write and musicians play fundamental tones. Those are the tones they hear in their minds, and those are the tones that carry the expressive content of the music. The overtones do not convey the expressive nuances. When the overtones are too loud, they mask or distort the actual musical content.

The tragedy of these types of halls is that they negate the purpose of music. The worst aberrations occur in the frequency range to which the body is most sensitive, causing physical tensions, discomfort, uneasiness, irritability, and other coarse, undesirable states that not only keep the audience from relaxing enough into the flow of the music to perceive fine details, but also keep the musicians themselves from relaxing into the flow of their own performance. The rarified, almost magical phenomenon wherein musicians and audience relax down to where they are vibrating very finely together--where the music seems to flow effortlessly, and everyone is simultaneously experiencing the emotional content--that phenomenon, which is the aim of all musical performance, simply does not happen at a fine level, if at all. Everything is experienced on a coarse level of emotional expression. The audience is not uplifted into as fine a quality of experience as is possible through music.

San Francisco's Davies Hall has a typically flawed acoustic. The author has not, in fact, heard a concert in Davies Hall that settled down to as truly refined, high-level a musician-audience experience as the particular performers were capable of. Only Claudio Arrau was sensitive enough to adjust adequately to the hall's characteristics, and the experience did happen, at least for some. But he had to trim the dynamics of his playing and readjust the harmonic balances to avoid a blurred sound. Unfortunately, the audience evidently was so used to the usual coarser, louder, more vulgar-sounding music-making in that hall that they were unable to settle down. They remained restless and seemed unable to give Arrau their full attention. The acoustic may also differ so greatly throughout the hall that many of the audience were not hearing the same way.

The situation is particularly bad when large ensembles work steadily in a bad hall. The Concertgebau Orchestra of Amsterdam, an orchestra famous for its full, mellow sound, sounded vulgarly distorted and shrill in Davies Hall. It is clear that part of the fabled Concertgebau Orchestra sound is due to the spectacularly mellow acoustics of their own concert hall. In particular, they have more opportunity to become acquainted with and to learn how to sustain the type of magical player-listener phenomenon described above. An orchestra playing regularly in a flawed hall does not have these opportunities. Thus, one of the most important of human experiences remains unfamiliar to them and to their audience.

It is dangerous to hear music with unequalized sound recordings and in concert halls that duplicate these flaws. If someone, particularly a young person, is introduced to the classics in a distorted way, wherein the expressive content is constantly falsified or stilted, he will continue to hear them the same way in the future, even in better performances. We are all similar to the famous “Pavlov dog” in that our reactions to sounds are conditioned by experience. First impressions are the ones that condition our responses. They are extraordinarily difficult to rid oneself of and, thus, condition the way we will hear the same music later. It is tragic that whole generations have been and are being introduced to our great classical musical heritage in this distorted manner. Even worse, most classical musicians make use of recordings for study purposes and thus remain unaware of the subtleties of the music. Those who are knowledgeable in the music world have long realized that the deterioration of the classical music scene has reached alarming proportions. But no one has realized that the deterioration is due primarily to bad recorded sound and its resultant imitation in modern concert-hall acoustics. A cultural heritage of centuries which embodies the most exquisite experiences known to mankind is in danger of obliteration.


1 See our paper “Stereo, A Misunderstanding”.

2 We do not hear all frequencies equally loud, and which frequencies we hear louder than others changes when the overall volume level is changed (when the setting of the master volume control is changed).

Explanations of sound-equalization, acoustics, and hearing are contained in our papers on those subjects, available upon request.


The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit, tax-exempt, research institute that was founded to investigate stress-producing vibrational influences in our lives and to pursue research in the fields of sight and sound; to provide material designed to help the public become aware of and understand stressful vibrational influences; to instruct the public in how to improve the quality of those influences in their lives; and to provide the research and explanations that are necessary for an understanding of how we see and hear.