For most humans, there is nothing easier than breathing, seeing, smelling and hearing. We do these things without thought, and even take them for granted.
Our senses were given to us to help us exist in a physical universe. They are transducers that allow physical stimuli to be converted into a form recognized by the brain.
We are bombarded with stimuli every waking moment, and our brains are continuously processing the information to help us function in our environment.
Of all of the senses, many researchers are the most amazed by the sense of hearing. In fact, more is known about how the eyes work than the ears.
While the act of hearing is quite simple, attempts to quantify and understand the processes involve mathematics and physics at the highest level.
Acoustics, simply, is the study of vibration. Architectural acoustics is the more specific study of air vibrations in enclosed spaces.
Sound travels in waves, and these waves interact in a complex way with the environment.
We usually think of sound waves as simply bouncing off of objects, but in fact the behavior of sound upon an encounter with a physical object can include reflection, absorption, refraction, diffraction and scattering - in any combination.
It is the complex combination of these behaviors that determine what something sounds like.
Hardly An Accident
Acousticians are concerned with two major areas. The first is how sound behaves in an enclosed space, and the second is how that behavior is perceived by human listeners.
The study of sound behavior involves measuring sound to quantify it - describing it objectively with numerical scores and values. It may also involve predicting its behavior. That’s the biggest challenge and where the real fun starts.
If we can predict sound behavior with reasonable accuracy, then we can determine in advance whether a proposed building will sound like a great concert hall, a large garbage can, or somewhere in between.
A good sounding room is hardly ever an accident, and it is a sad fact that the construction methods and materials used in the Western world usually produce bad-sounding rooms.
Materials such as plaster, glass, painted block, steel and wood are very reflective. Excessive use of these materials in large spaces is a recipe for sonic disaster.
We have all been to the high school gym or convention center that is an acoustic nightmare because of the lack of acoustical treatment.
Unfortunately, relatively few people have been to a great concert hall that is an acoustical wonder and a joy for listening.
The common denominator of the great concert halls of the world is that they were all designed by competent acousticians that had a large enough budget to do it right.
About 70 percent of any sound that we hear indoors has reflected off of one or more objects before it arrives at our ears.
This means that even a good sound source, like a fine violin or a high-quality loudspeaker, can sound bad if the reflected field is less-than-optimum.