Tag Archives: Jerry Murad

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.