You Can Hear Hagia Sophia’s Sublime Acoustics Without a Trip to Istanbul

Stanford scientists have digitally created the building’s unique sound, taking listeners back to the Middle Ages

An interior shot of Hagia Sophia. Its name means "Holy Wisdom" or "Sacred Wisdom." Michael Day via Wikimedia Commons

Hagia Sophia, a former church and mosque, is an important part of Istanbul’s long history. Who knew its sublime sound could be transferred to Stanford?

Twice in the past few years, Stanford scholars and scientists have worked to digitally recreate the experience of being in Hagia Sophia when it was a medieval church. Collaborating with choral group Cappella Romana, they digitally recreated the former holy building’s acoustics, and performed medieval church music in the university's Bing Concert Hall as if it was Hagia Sophia. Their efforts are part of a multi-year collaboration between departments at Stanford that asks the question: can modern technology help us go back in time?

The “Icons of Sound” project focuses on the interior of Hagia Sophia, using recordings of balloon pops taken in the space and other audio and visual research to  figure out the building’s acoustics by extrapolating from those noises. The scientists used that data to recreate the experience of being there—an experience that has been in some ways timeless for the almost 1,500 years the building has stood. But much has changed for the Hagia Sophia in that time.

In its lifetime, the massive structure, “with its giant buttresses and soaring minarets,” has been the site of what Smithsonian writer Fergus M. Bordewich calls “a cultural collision of epic proportions”. Its name translates from Greek as “Sacred Wisdom,” he writes, and it represents the legacies of “medieval Christianity, the Ottoman Empire, resurgent Islam and modern secular Turkey.”

When it was built in the sixth century (records show it was dedicated on this day in 537), Hagia Sophia was an Orthodox Christian church and the jewel of Constantinople, before it became the greatest religious building of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century, writes Kaya Genç for The Paris Review, and a mosque. In 1935, it was secularized and turned into a museum, although there are calls from nationalist groups to turn it into a fully-functioning mosque once again.

The music that Cappella Romana performs is historical Christian music. Much of their work for the Hagia Sophia project has not been heard in centuries, writes Jason Victor Serinus for Stanford’s events blog. It certainly hasn’t been performed in the former church in all that time.

Icons of Sound - Total Sacred Immersion: Cappella Romana and CCRMA Time Travel to Hagia Sophia

To recreate the unique sound, performers sang while listening to the simulated acoustics of  Hagia Sophia through earphones. Their singing was then put through the same acoustic simulator and played during the live performance through speakers in the concert hall, as they also sang, making the performance sound like it was taking place in Istanbul at Hagia Sophia.

“Hagia Sophia’s unique acoustics dramatically impacts not just the sound, but the performance itself,” writes the sound company that miked the singers. “Vocalists slow their tempo to work with the nearly 11-second-long reverberation time, while isokratima (the drone chanters) subtly vary their pitch to find building resonances. As a result, to create a virtual performance, the performers must hear the space in real time.”

There’s no substitute for being there, as the saying goes. But since it’s impossible to travel back in time to be present at a tenth-century church service, this is maybe the next best thing.

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