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The Acoustics of Ancient Greek Theaters Aren’t What They Used to Be

The sound quality in ancient times was likely much better than it is today

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smithsonian.com

It is often said that the acoustics of ancient Greek theaters were so sophisticated that spectators in the back row could hear the actors with perfect clarity, long before microphones came into the picture. In modern times, tour guides will often drop a pin, strike a match or tear a piece of paper on the stages of these ancient auditoriums to demonstrate that soft sounds can be heard by visitors high up in the seats. But as Nicola Davis reports for the Guardian, a recent study suggests that Greek theaters’ acoustics are not quite so exemplary—at least not anymore.

A team of researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands took over 10,000 acoustic measurements in three ancient Greek theaters: the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the Argos Theater and the theater of Epidaurus (a sprawling fourth century structure that has been particularly lauded for its sound engineering). They placed microphones around the theaters and loudspeakers in the center of their stages, which played a sound that ranged from low to high frequency.

Using a wireless system that they developed themselves, researchers took readings from hundreds of difference spots in the theaters at different times during the day, since fluctuations in temperature and humidity can impact acoustic quality, according to a university press release. The measurements allowed the team to calculate the strength of sounds at different spots in the theater.

Researchers also made lab recordings of various sounds—actors’ speaking in a range of volumes, a coin being dropped, a match being struck, a paper being torn—and played them in theaters, where participants could adjust the volume of the sounds until they could hear them.

The team’s results, which are discussed in a series of conference papers, suggest that auditory legends about Greek theaters may no longer hold water. At Epidaurus, for instance, the sounds of a coin dropping or a paper tearing could be heard throughout the theater, but they were not recognizable past the halfway point of the seats. A whisper could only be heard by participants sitting in the front row. Words spoken at a normal volume could not be heard in the back rows of any of the theaters.

Speaking to Natasha Frost of Atlas Obscura, study co-author Remy Wenmaekers was careful to emphasize that the team’s research does not have any bearing on the sound quality experienced by the ancient Greeks. “What we investigated was the current theaters, as they are right now,” he said. “Our conclusions are saying nothing about what the theaters would have been like 2,000 years ago, and our expectation is that they were very different.”

Ancient theaters, he added, may have been decorated with backdrops that helped magnify sound. Armand D’Angour, a classical scholar and musician at Oxford University, tells Frost that the theaters’ acoustics were likely better in ancient times because their surfaces “would have been shiny, because they’d have been polished marble, whereas they’re now very rutted.” Greek actors also wore masks, which further amplified their voices.

Although the theaters’ acoustics did not hold up to legend during the researchers’ investigation, their study reveals that the sound quality of ancient entertainment sites is still very good. Words spoken loudly with projection—in the way that Greek actors were trained to do—could be heard clearly in the uppermost rows of all three theaters. And for ancient Greeks who flocked to the theater to enjoy the works of Sophocles, or Euripides, or Aristophanes, being able to hear the actors was probably what mattered most. 

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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