Finnish researchers have examined how concert hall acoustics can influence the emotional response of a listener.

Ever wondered why the cheap seats are at the back? Or why the same orchestra might be more or less affecting in different concert halls? A new study funded by the Academy of Finland has found that sitting closer to the orchestra elicits stronger emotional responses and that the emotional impact of an orchestral performance is affected by the acoustics of the concert hall. In short, a closer seat in a better hall means more feels.

Two researchers from the Department of Computer Science at Aalto University School of Science in Finland tested the hypothesis that the acoustics in different concert halls contribute differently to the emotional impact of a performance. Studies have already shown that listening to music is a source of emotional arousal. Previous research has shown that listeners report a greater emotional response in rectangular halls – sometimes described as “the shoebox” – such as the Vienna Musikverein. However, this new research bypassed subjective responses, instead measuring the responses of 28 participants using skin conductance tests to measure their psychophysiological responses – like chills and goosebumps.

The music used was a 28-second excerpt from the first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (bars 11–18), in an anechoic recording played through a three-dimensional array of loudspeakers corresponding to a typical orchestral seating arrangement. This was then picked up by two receivers in corresponding positions in each of six concert halls: Vienna Musikverein, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Berlin Konzerthaus and Philharmonie, Cologne Philharmonie, and Helsinki Music Centre.

With the positions of both receivers taken into account, 59% of subjects exhibited the strongest responses in either the Vienna Musikverein or Berlin Konzerthaus and the differences in receiver positions indicated that proximity to the performers affects the audience response. The participants were also tested using subjective responses and these were found to compliment the conductance tests. The researchers claim that the outcomes of this study calls for “research integrating the fields of acoustics and psychology to establish a means of further exploring and predicting the connection between emotional responses and discrete properties of the sound field.”

This study builds on a body of acoustic research that has been developing for over 100 years and will no doubt be a useful new perspective for designers of future concerts. Because after all, what is the point of music if not to produce an emotional response – to give you goosebumps?