I'm not going to lie, this is one of my favorite punny comics of all time. I've shared it sooooo many times because it never fails to make me laugh. It's also the perfect gateway to talking about an important aspect of singing that is often overlooked.
In any space where we make sound, the brain is gathering information on the environment that gives meaning to the environment. This happens a lot in the most powerful processing area of the brain called the temporal lobe. In that part of the brain, raw data from the ears and eyes are taken in and processed so the brain can figure out what it's looking at and hearing. Specifically when it comes to acoustics, the brain is analyzing the reverberation and reflections in a room to figure out how big the room is, where the walls and other objects are, and how loud the sounds are. Then it takes that information and helps the other parts of the brain decide what to do about it.
I mentioned a couple of terms above that are important to know when it comes to acoustics. Let's get a little clarity on those terms! (Most of this blog first appeared as an email during Pedagogy Advent in December 2020. Stay tuned later this year for Pedagogy Advent 2021!)
Reverberation, or reverb, as the cool kids say, is what we often mean when we refer to how long a sound rings or bounces around a room. This is kinda sorta true, but it's a little more technical than that. In the field of acoustics, reverberation is often referred to as T60, where T stands for time (in seconds) and 60 refers to 60 decibels. That's all a fancy way of describing how many seconds it takes for the original sound to diminish by 60 decibels.
An example: A Wagner soprano stands on a stage and wails out her despair over whatever slight just occurred in her love life. Her big high note measures at 96 decibels. An acoustician in the audience holds up his decibel reader and 2.5 seconds later the sound is now at 36 decibels. That means the room has a reverb rate 2.5 seconds, or T60 = 2.5. Goodness, that is very simplistic, but hopefully that will get us all on the same page.
Simply put, this is how the sound waves bounce around the room. If you've been in a professionally designed auditorium, you'll likely notice that the walls are not parallel to each other, and there might be various ways that the pros have influenced how sound gets around. This might be curtains or drapes that can move in or out, "bumpy" walls or ceilings, or even holes in the ceiling that can allow sound waves to bounce around for longer. These reflections can influence reverberation, and most definitely influences how performers and audiences perceive sound. Brains react to reflections based on what direction they come from and how long it takes for the reflections to get to you. It gets even more complicated when we start talking about early and late reflections, but that's for another time. So, why should you care about this? Well, first it's cool. And information is neat. But beyond that, we can have a bit of influence in how our students perceive sound by how we arrange our studios. This is worth experimenting with. Most of us probably teach in rooms that are essentially boxes with parallel walls, and the T60 rate is going to be quite short, probably half a second or less. When I measured practice rooms, T60 was somewhere between 0.2 and 0.4 seconds for most rooms, but everybody's favorite room measured at 0.55. I don't think that's an accident. We like just a little bit of ring when we're singing. I mean, the shower is a great place to sing for a reason! What if you changed where a student stands in the room? Instead of against a wall, where he or she is then basically singing toward another flat wall, what if you stood your singer in the corner so they are singing toward the opposite corner? The sound is then going to bounce differently. Or what if they are standing in the middle of the room instead of at the side, or vice versa? Or maybe you go nuts and put in some bouncy tiles on the ceiling so the sound is reflected differently? You can also add different materials to the walls to change the way it sounds. In general, hard surfaces reflect, porous or soft surfaces absorb. And if you have things like curtains or rugs, you can quickly change the sound. Now, I can't tell you that in a small room you will notice a huge difference. The difference may be small, or maybe even none at all depending on a lot of factors. However, it could be worth it to experiment a little bit and see what changing up your room might do. My studio is a 12x12 room with pretty much bare walls and a hard floor, but I notice a change when I roll out the rug or stand in the corner. It's fun to play with. Try some things out and let me know if you find anything!