Did You Know? Musical Notes from the Penn State Laureate

May 06, 2009

Q: What does acoustic mean for a classical musician?

A: From the back of the Royal Albert Hall in London, you can hear a clarinetist take a slow breath and then begin to play very softly. Every nuance of color of each individual instrument is clear and the separate lines are distinct. The tone of a Stradivari instrument can express the deepest emotions without forcing. At times, audience members are sitting on the edge of their seats, the atmosphere is absolutely still … captivating. To hear the finest musicians playing our extraordinary classical music in this setting is awe-inspiring.

"Acoustic" means "made for, designed for or having the quality of facilitating the perception of sound" (Webster). No microphones are necessary. In fact, a microphone can interfere with the sound waves that are created and reflected by the surfaces on the floor, sides and ceiling of the hall. Just like lighting an exquisite gemstone, so that you can see the sparkle of every facet, a great acoustic allows every aspect of the music to be heard. One of the key elements of an excellent orchestral acoustic is wood, which still acts as a living material hundreds of years after it is harvested and carved. Just as our string instruments are made of specific woods, a wood hall itself becomes an integral part of the music-making. It actually helps to shape the sound that the listener hears. One of the most important elements of making music accessible to the public is the opportunity to hear it in a true acoustic.

Over the past three years, Penn State President Graham B. Spanier has sponsored School of Music concerts in Heinz Hall (Pittsburgh), Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.) and the Kimmel Center (Philadelphia). Not only do these concerts provide a showcase for our talented students, but they also allow them the chance to experience the magic of performing in acoustically designed spaces that effortlessly capture every shade of musical color. What an amazing tapestry of sound they can create.

Please send any other musical questions that you always wanted to know but were too shy to ask to Penn State Laureate Kim Cook at kdc3@psu.edu.

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Last Updated May 11, 2009