Pin-drop test pops Greek amphitheater’s acoustic claims

Analysis reveals that guidebooks overhype the site’s ability to carry sounds

Greek amphitheater in Epidaurus

NOW HEAR THIS  This ancient Greek amphitheater in Epidaurus is renowned for its acoustics, but good luck hearing whispers if you’re sitting in the back row.

Richard Barrett-Small/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

BOSTON — Guidebook claims about the superior acoustics of the ancient Greek amphitheater of Epidaurus are a tad melodramatic. An actor’s voice can be heard in the back row, but whispers and other quiet noises cannot, acoustician Remy Wenmaekers reported June 28 at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

The acoustics of the 14,000-seat theater, which dates to the fourth century B.C., are often touted as carrying faint sounds with extraordinary clarity. Wenmaekers and colleagues at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands positioned microphones at 264 spots throughout the theater and recorded a slow whooping sound projected from the stage that went from low to high frequency with time like a fire truck siren. The team also recorded sounds made by a voice simulator that mimics the frequency spectrum of a male speaker. These tests provided acoustic parameters such as sound strength and reverberation time for various spots in the audience. Then, in a lab, researchers determined the threshold for hearing noises such as a pin dropping or person whispering against the background noise of the theater.  

With no roads of humming traffic nearby, the theater, which is still in use today, is remarkably quiet, especially when there’s no wind, Wenmaekers said. But sounds like tearing a sheet of paper or striking a match would be discernable only for someone sitting near the stage. The sound of a dropped coin would just barely be audible for someone seated in the back, but a dropped pin would be too quiet to hear. It’s still unknown just how far noise made by an audience member unwrapping a piece of candy carries.

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