Why does music sound better with reverb?

This 1947 number one hit “Peg o’ My Heart” by Jerry Murad’s Harmonicats, was the first recording to use reverberation artistically. [1]

Since then, “reverb” has become a ubiquitous part of the music producer’s tool kit. Natural reverberation also plays a vital role in classical music, with concert halls being carefully designed so the brief lingering of sound in the hall embellishes the orchestra’s sound. Archaeoacoustic experts argue that the reverberation created by ancient monuments such as Stonehenge or within caves [2] were used by our ancestors to enhance rituals.

What it is about reverberation that has made it so important to music for thousands of years? Scientific studies have looked at our preferences for other musical characteristics. For example, humans innately prefer certain combinations of notes, although this preference can be altered by the music we hear during our lives. Would a scientific study find an innate preference for reverberation? Or is reverberation something we just learn to like through experience?

A study by Bidelman and Krishnan investigated the response in the brainstem to a vowel sound, and how this was changed with moderate reverberation.[3] They found that reverberation had little effect on the neural encoding of pitch while significantly degrading the neural encoding of formant-related harmonics. Within music, this would indicate that the perceived timbre of the notes would change but not the pitch. On television programs where people with lousy voices attempt to sing, as soon as the person hits the first note you can hear the audio engineers slathering on reverberation to rescue the sound. The study by Bidelman and Krishnan confirms what you might have heard, the added reverberation might improve the quality of the poor singer’s voice, but it does nothing for the tuning.

One thing our brain senses from reverberation is the geometry of the room where music is being played. Evidence suggests that the size of a room, sensed through audio cues such as reverberation, affects our emotional response to neutral and nice sounds. We tend to perceive small rooms as being calmer, safer, and more pleasant than large spaces.[4] Moderate reverberation added to music gives us a sense of listening indoors. Is one of the reasons for liking reverberation is that it makes us feel enclosed and safe from the outside world?

But music producers often go further, adding more reverberation to give the illusion that the guitar or vocalists are playing from the back of a large venue. Is this liked because it takes us back to a favourite gig and conjures up an image of being around other people enjoying themselves? Afterall, one of the theories for why we have evolved music making is that it is a “social glue, a way to bring early humans together into a close-knit community.

Moderate reverberation is certainly appreciated by musicians because it helps blend the sound and smooth transitions between notes. I recently played my saxophone in Salford’s anechoic chamber while showing visitors around. I hated having all my small errors exposed when my fingers didn’t quite move between notes in perfect coordination. Is that what is behind a love of reverberation, simply that it just makes music making easier?

Why do you think we like reverberation? Please comment below.

Notes

[1] P. Doyle, Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music, 1900–1960 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press), 143.

[2] Iegor Reznikoff and Michel Dauvois, Bulletin de Ia Societe PrehistonqueFrancaise (85. 238-246; 1988).

[3] RT60 0.7- 0.9s

[4] A. Tajadura-Jiménez, P. Larsson, A. Väljamäe, D. Västfjäll, and M. Kleiner,
“When Room Size Matters: Acoustic Influences on Emotional Responses to
Sounds,” Emotion 10 (2010): 416–22.

15 responses to “Why does music sound better with reverb?

  1. Hi, my name is Joaquín, I’m from México. Well, my father is a singer (and I sing too in a less professional way), he sings and play in small reunions. Anyway, when our clients ask for the microphone to sing, we’ve noticed that they like their voice better and feel more secure when it has reverb. I’ve been playing a little with this, specially with a client who loves to sing but he doesn’t do it very well,so in some songs I take it away,and he says: hey, this I don’t sound well, or: this isn’t the magic mic! So yeah, I think it has to do with security or, at least, feeling comfortable. Because being honest I do feel it too.
    Saludos =) I like your blog. I am an electronics engineer, and I want to pursue a career in acoustics, so I really like and appreciate what you post here. Thanks.

  2. I believe we like reverberation because of that feeling of being inside it… or of the immersion and being enveloped by the music and reverb … also, it gives that depth and feel specially when put into vocals… it’s the emotion that is brought to by the vocal, instrument, music plus reverberation… riclaps

  3. Reverberation is a good feedback for singers. With a ‘considerable’ amount of reverberation musicians can hear themselves and they know how they are performing. Singers would hear their voices clearly and they would know if they are in the proper key, other musicians would know how their instrument sounds like. Here’s an example of a very good singer enjoying herself while singing in the bathroom: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bO8jyW26PLM

    So yeah, confidence is definite

  4. If longer reverbs are simply a consequence of “this room can hold a large a group of people”, such as a place of worship or political assembly, then we may sense that they makes the performer seem more important and deserving of our attention. In contrast to the idea that short reverbs making us feel safe, more generous amounts can appeal to what I think a lot of people like from their art; a sense of being transported to somewhere else, somewhere extra-ordinary as evidenced in the “longer than necessary for the audience size” reverberation times found in churches, which may still evoke a sense of “divinity” in music.

    Still, it’s as much a case of what reverb and how much, if any at all. That and tastes change all the time, from the dry clicking of drums in a disco song to the “I want my snare drum to sound like a gunshot” of glam metal. Seemingly inappropriate use of artificial ambience is perhaps still one of the biggest hallmarks of an amateur recording and must be the bane of any music technology instructor.

    In summary, here’s an Irish band playing in a church http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OY-8z_D_LM , an Icelandic band playing in a silo formally used to store fish oil http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiJzw_m7Xas and an American band playing very loud in a studio http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7B-AlKTdGQ

  5. Interesting. I have a much simpler theory – of very limited explanatory value, maybe – but it certainly may give a useful analogy at least: to find out why music sounds better with reverb than without, try eating a big bowl of corn flakes without milk.

    Does music really sound better with reverb than without? Yes, of course it does! And this is undoubtedly due to the perception of environmental geometries – room sizes and shapes and so on. But these explanations may be more about the how of music sounding better with reverberation than without; but it would take a lot of qualitative (and then quantitative) psychological research to delineate the reasons why this is so: I’d take a guess at their being a number of psychological factors.

    I find this article interesting for the following reasons:
    1- BA-equivalence in applied psychology (with a minor in mathematical sciences: mathematics, physics & electronic engineering) – had an interest in sound recording and its technology since being a teenager;
    2- multi-instrumentalist and recording artist since being a teenager;
    3- occasional engineering/production duties in recording.

    • To PSYCHTLD ;- I am sure that we all agree with your, (in my humble opinion,) even OVER simplified explanation.

  6. The reverb quation answer are so nice .I have learnt music sound better with reverb .

  7. I think reverb is simply natural because you hear everything in a “room”. If you hear no room, it´s strange.

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  9. As a singer of many different styles of music,I am sure the same principle applies; ie.,to a very large part, hearing is the greatest part of singing. When you are able to hear how your voice sounds,the better you can “play” with it. In the open air you can hear yourself singing naturally, although there may be no reverb or echo. If you sing through a “dead” microphone however,the note cuts off as soon as you stop singing ,(un less there are acoustics in the place you are singing ) ,and emphasizes the fact that you are using a mike., it sounds “cold”. Reverb can change this for the better. Another aspect of reverb is that ,used properly,can create
    dramatic “atmosphere”. I’m sure most singers and musicians would rather
    perform in an acoustically pleasing venue than in a one where the sound is “dead”,I know I would!

  10. Resonances are the result of recombination, ie reflection, exchange across a fulcrum.

    Therefore every single note is already made of reflections, hence more reverb is structurally equivalent to automatic accompaniment, or reinforcement.

  11. (Sorry for my english)
    Like you said, in some songs the reverb emulates a room or a big venue, however I feel that the most impressing reverbs of some songs, which are from high sounds part, they emulates like a open ground where the mountains produce the echoes, or the sounds seems to go to the infinity. I think they want to emulates the power of the bass sound from a lightning or also the power from some kind of “voice of a god” from the clouds, which covers and surround a whole valley.

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  13. The sound of your voice is dictated by the measure of your vocal lines and other physiological variables. While it’s impractical to totally modify your voice from high to low or the other way around, there are strategies you can attempt to roll out slight improvements to your pitch and volume and draw out the best in your common voice.

  14. Strange observation I have made, maybe it is an illusion, but it seems that reverb makes you sound a bit more in tune, or at least it masks a slightly sharp or flat voice – in my case an alto saxophone. I am here talking of post-processed reverb, i.e applied in the studio – so there is no feedback and adjusted intonation involved.

    /Viggo

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