Acoustics archaeologists recreate Renaissance experience

  • November 4, 2011
Acoustics archaeologists recreate Renaissance experience

Gates alumnus Braxton Boren presents research at American Acoustical Society.

What would the works of great Renaissance composers like Monteverdi, Willaert and Gabrieli have sounded like when they were heard for the first time?

Research by Gates alumnus Braxton Boren and Professor Malcolm Longair, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, shows that the acoustics were best on festivals when the churches were packed and decorated with tapestries and favoured the person sitting in the richest seat.

They revealed the results of their research on two Venetian churches at the American Acoustical Society on Monday.

The research has been covered by Science magazine, Discover magazine and the Scientific American.

Boren and Longair recreated online the acoustics of the Redentore and Basilica of San Marco during the Renaissance period, a time when new music was being written which required a very detailed understanding of polyphony – music which uses split choirs and multiple parts. 

The two collaborated with Deborah Howard, Professor of Architectural History, to assess how the buildings have changed over the past 400 years and hope eventually to be able to listen to the way they sounded when they were built. It was Professor Howard’s long history of researching Venice that first prompted the interest in the acoustics of Venetian churches.

She advised on how churches like the Redentore would have sounded during special festivities, with extra seats put in for VIPs and tapestries hung. The latter, for example, would have cut the normal reverberation in the church.

They first characterised acoustically how music would have sounded in different parts of the church to gauge all the acoustic parameters. Then Boren built a virtual model of the church. The researchers then added in all the acoustic variables, such as the material used for the walls, tapestries and the number of people who might have been in the audience.

To test how the music would have sounded in various virtual spaces, they recorded St John’s choir in a place with no echoes so that they can add in different spatial effects to see what difference these would have made to the sound. On the computer they can move the choir around the virtually created churches to find out how a piece of music might have sounded in the past depending on where singers were placed.

They also investigated the impact of the small pergoli, or balconies, on a person sitting in the Doge’s throne when a choir was split between them and found that in a fully decorated church the reverberation time was reduced to between 1.5 and two seconds.

Braxton [2009] did an MPhil in Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory, building acoustical models of Renaissance Venetian Churches. He is now studying Spatial Sound at the Music and Audio Research Lab at New York University.

Picture credit: NoeliaCG and Creative Commons

Latest News

Provost wins top Royal Society award

Gates Cambridge Provost Professor Barry Everitt has been selected for the Royal Society’s premier award in the biological sciences. Professor Barry Everitt FMedSci FRS has been awarded the Croonian Medal and Lecture 2021 for his research on the application of his findings on brain mechanisms of motivation to important societal issues, such as drug addiction. […]

Addressing energy injustice in the Global South

A new framework which uses artificial intelligence to analyse textual data on energy use and behaviour could help policymakers develop a deeper understanding of energy injustices in the Global South. The study, Grounded reality meets machine learning: A deep-narrative analysis framework for energy policy research, was led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Ramit Debnath [2018] and is published in the journal Energy Research […]

Scholar wins top German prize for PhD thesis

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has won a prestigious international award for her PhD dissertation on the relationship between offshore finance and state power. Dr Andrea Binder was named winner of the Körber Foundation’s German Dissertation Award 2020 for social sciences. The prize, one of the most highly endowed for young researchers from Germany, honours excellent PhD research which […]

Developing a farm for impact model

Shadrack Frimpong has not yet started his PhD, but already his and his team’s work has earned him awards from the Queen, the Clinton Foundation and the Muhammad Ali Foundation. The awards are for their outstanding work in creating a potential new development model for rural crop-growing communities starting from Shadrack’s own village in Ghana. […]