The Greek Myth of Theater Acoustics

Fagjun | Published 2017-10-19 20:33

Is it true that you’d be able to hear a pin drop in the ancient Greek theater of Epidaurus wherever you may be seated? Tour guides may say so, but scientists say no.

The theater of Epidaurus



Epidaurus was a small ancient city on Greece’s Argolid Peninsula. Its theater, which dated back to the fourth century, was able to seat up to 14,000 spectators. The theater showed dramatic games, singing, and music that were all part of the worship of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. There have long been praises about the acoustics and sound quality of the theater, with British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler saying: “Even a stage whisper could be picked up the furthest spectator with the cheapest ticket.”


So if you’re sitting in the worst seat at that theater, and there are 13,999 other people in there with you, are you going to be able to hear the faintest of whispers from the players onstage? A series of conference papers tells us that this, apparently, is just another Greek myth.

Do You Hear What I Hear

Would you still be able to hear anything from the farthest seats?



Researcher Constant Hak went to the theater of Epidaurus himself some years ago and found the experience somewhat lacking. He didn’t notice anything special or out of the ordinary about the acoustics of the theater. Thus, he and his colleagues tested the acoustics of the theater in order to get to the bottom of the mystery.


The researchers placed a total of 20 microphones in 12 different spots around the theater. They also placed one loudspeaker at the center of the stage and another one off to the side. Each of the loudspeakers played a sound that went from high to low frequency. The researchers also placed a slight delay between the loudspeakers playbacks, and placed the loudspeakers at five different orientations. The team managed to make about 2,400 recordings.


This set-up helped the researchers measure the strength of sound at different spots around the theater.


So how did the researchers test whether or not you could indeed hear a tiny thing drop in the crowded theater? They gathered participants for the research and played recordings of sounds like a person whispering, a coin dropping, and paper tearing. Participants had the option of adjusting the volume of the sounds until they could be heard over background noise.

Myth Busted?



According to the findings, sounds like a coin dropping or paper tearing can be heard clear across the theater, but only up to halfway up the seats. A whisper, meanwhile, would only be audible to those in the lowest seats closest to the stage. Actors would only be heard by those in the farthest seats if they spoke up loudly.


Dr. Bruno Fazenda, a researcher who has studied the acoustics of Stonehenge, was receptive to Hak’s findings. He also had misgivings about the claims about the theater’s acoustics, saying: “You can certainly hear things, but [the results] are right: if you want to have good speech intelligibility, good perception right up the last rows, then you need someone who can project the voice.” It’s highly likely that ancient Greek thespians were skilled at making themselves heard across and up the seats of the theater.


However, other scientists say that the study analyzes the state of the theater now, centuries after it was built. Thus, its acoustics may not be same as they once were.

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