Architectural Acoustics: A New Science
Symphony Hall and Wallace Clement Sabine 1868-1919


A new science, architectural acoustics, began right here in Boston with the erection of a new concert hall in 1900. Home of the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops Orchestras, Boston Symphony Hall, on the corner of Massachusetts and Huntington Avenues, is regarded as one of the top three concert halls in the world.

The quality of sound incorporated into the design of this building is due to the studies of a young Harvard physicist, Wallace Clement Sabine. It seems that Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, built in 1895, had a lecture hall with horrendous acoustics. Sabine was asked to look into the matter and spent three years testing the acoustics using a stopwatch and cushions for tools. He came up with a mathematical formula for reverberations, relating it to room volume and materials. The unit for a material's sound absorption, the sabin, is named after him. Unfortunately, Fogg's lecture hall was beyond redemption and was eventually torn down.

At about this time, city leaders were ready to build a new concert hall. Funded by philanthropist Major Henry Lee Higginson and designed by Charles Follen McKim, this building was to be used for one purpose-music. They asked Wallace Sabine to come up with acoustical specifications which would ensure hearing superb music from every seat. Sabine answered with a shoebox shape for the building to keep out street noise. Then, using his mathematical formula for reverberations, Sabine carefully adjusted the spacing between the rows of seats, the slant of the walls, the shape of the stage, and materials used in the walls to produce the exquisite sound heard today at Symphony Hall.



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 Symphony Hall: The First 100 Years, 2000