I’ve often wondered how, with no microphones in ancient Greece, the audience in the back rows of ancient theaters could hear the actors on the stage. The echo on the stage of Pinto Art Museum’s amphitheater, a small version of an ancient Greek theater, gave me a clue.
Legend has it that in ancient Greek theaters that could seat as many as 14,000 spectators, even the audience in the last row could hear the drop of the pin on the stage. The legend is perpetrated by tour guides to inspire awe among visitors of the relics of these theaters.
How was sound amplified that well? According to some theories, it’s the limestone that the seats are made of. Or, perhaps, the sloping design of the theater itself.
A 2017 study reveals that the claim about hearing the drop of a pin in the back row as clearly as though the spectator was sitting in the front row may have been a gross exaggeration. A myth, no less. While it is hard to compare the acoustics of theater ruins with the acoustics of a theater in its fully glory, choosing actors who projected their voices well may be a key factor to explain how they were heard well despite their distance from the farthest rows.
What does that have to do with Pinto Art Museum‘s amphitheater? A lot.
When we reached the amphitheater, the first thing I noticed were the three shrouded figures on what appeared to be the stage. I took my sweet time taking photos while wondering about the significance of the figures. I found a plaque that says “The Nine Muses and Chorus” by Noi Gonzales but the three figures didn’t look anything like the nine muses.
Meanwhile, Alex had walked to the center of the stage.
Seconds later, she was calling out to me. There’s something different about the sound, she said. She called out while standing on the center of the stage, walked a few meters away, called out again and asked me to compare the sound she made from the two locations. I couldn’t discern any difference.
She walked back to the center of the stage, started clapping her hands and insisted that I join her. I did. And, once on the center of the stage, I spoke a few words. My voice was echoing. I was surprised, amazed and totally awed.
There stage is the roof of a building.
I asked aloud what could be underneath the flooring of the stage to make that possible. It’s sound engineering, Alex said. I’m sure it is. Marvelous engineering is responsible for the acoustics. As Alex walked away to explore the perimeter of the amphitheater, I was tempted to sing. It just seemed right. You just sound better and bigger on that stage.
The thing is, we did test a few minutes earlier if, from the back row, the quality of sound emanating from the center of the stage was different from sound made outside the stage. And I perceived no difference. But then, I was using my bare ears and I am not trained to notice differences in acoustics. I’m now wondering if differences would be apparent if I had been listening more closely and with more attention, or if the sounds were recorded using sensitive machines. A little box to tick off on our next visit to Pinto. Test the quality of the sounds again.