In the past, architects who designed concert halls with good acoustics have done so blindly. Concert hall design was about hits and misses, and an acoustically successful concert hall was merely the product of good luck. Once a decent hall was designed, architects would copy the model in an attempt to achieve the same acoustics, but no one really knew what made one hall sound wonderful and another appalling. As a result, many concert halls failed and were destroyed in the process of natural selection. In the past century, however, the study of acoustics has developed into a more precise science.
The beginnings of architectural acoustics as a science originated at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum. Soon after the museum was built in 1895, it was determined that its lecture hall had absolutely atrocious acoustics. Wallace Clement Sabine, a young physics professor, was asked to help. For the next three years, Sabine delved into the task of scientifically testing the room acoustics, using a stopwatch and a number of seat cushions.
Fogg Art Museum’s lecture hall never did measure up to standards for acceptable speech intelligibility and was eventually torn down. However, while attempting to fix the acoustics, Sabine developed a foundation for the science of architectural acoustics. He formulated an equation for reverberation time, relating it to room volume and materials. The unit for a material’s sound absorption, the sabin, is named after him.
Wallace Sabine is thus viewed as the father of modern architectural acoustics. He was the first to quantify and measure factors that contribute to suitable room acoustics. Since Sabine’s experiments, physicists and engineers have found that good acoustics depends on much more than just reverberation time. These parameters, as well as the concept of reverberation time, are explained further in the discussion section.