Harmonizing – Designing With Music in Mind

Practical considerations for designing performance spaces, from a performer, designer, and consumer; Part 1

Before reading, take a quick break and enjoy some music “He watching over Israel” Mendelssohn, Elijah Op. 70

Chorus from “Elijah” (by Felix Mendelssohn). Performed by Seattle Pro Musica, solists and orchestra, under the direction of the Karen P. Thomas. Live recording from a May 2009 performance, St. James Cathedral, Seattle. Audio by Bill Levy. Video by Mitchell Haindfield.

Just a month ago I had the privilege of being able to hear a live choir at the 11 a.m. Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral in Sioux Falls. Having not heard voices come together in live, choral harmony for over six months, I was literally moved to tears. In this era of COVID-19, it gave me hope. As a musician myself, it transported me back to my own participation with the South Dakota Symphony Chorus. Like so many performing arts institutions, our art was put on hold abruptly in March of 2020.

I was also awe-struck by how resonate the space sounded with only 12 choristers spaced six feet apart within a choir loft. The beautiful pairing of sacred choral music in a sacred and equally beautiful space was only enhanced by this realization.

The reasoning is simple – due to the nave’s design, a single (properly trained) singer or “cantor” or small polyphonic choir can easily fill the entire space because of the reverberations the geometries promote – hopefully nourishing the gathered souls with a glimpse of beauty that points them toward the divine[i].

Enough music history for now though, let’s talk more practically about design, particularly that of music performance spaces. These spaces cover a wide variety of program type, from outdoor bandshells, small recital halls, to large arenas, auditoriums, and as the introductory narrative illustrates, churches and basilicas. For the purposes of this two-part series of posts, we’ll focus on those spaces most often used for traditional acoustical performance – more your indoor theatre, orchestral, choral type settings and not your rock-concert type venues.

I have some experience with “rock” type venues. It is quite limited, if not embarrassing, so we shall refrain.

There is more to designing for performance spaces than just the “sound” or acoustics, however. Nearly equal to the auditory component is the visual component; people are coming together to not only hear but also see a performance. For the first post in this two-part series, we’ll be focusing on the visual considerations of these spaces. These include sightlines to the performers, having proper lighting, providing the proper backdrop for the performance itself, etc. The visual aspect being rather intuitive, it is often the least difficult to achieve functionally, outside of a few specific considerations within each of the aforementioned categories:


It is important that lighting can cover the entire stage. This sounds straight-forward enough, but it is important that all possible uses of a space are discussed and that all owner equipment is coordinated for the proper lighting design. The owner/user needs to also be well trained in how the stage should be set up and how lights can be adjusted. Too often have I seen the seven foot tall Bass II on the back, highest row of choral risers, with shoulders fully illuminated but head in the dark.

To adjust lights, they need access or automation. In state-of-the art facilities, much of the lighting can be digitally automated, but access is still needed for larger adjustments and maintenance. In larger but more utilitarian spaces access is generally achieved via catwalks above a music hall. If lighting needs to be adjusted overtop seating, especially sloped seating, and catwalks are out of the question, install the lighting on a motorized winch system for ease of access. This eliminates the need to invest in complicated scaffolding to reach the lighting pipes. In smaller venues, ensure a scissor lift can access the stage so that fixtures can be changed that way (if no operable rigging is provided).


House-right paneling of Augustana University’s Hamre Recital Hall

General strategies for acoustic performance are often similar when it comes to music spaces, but the visual outcome may not be. It’s important that the aesthetic look not interfere with the desired acoustical function of the space, yet at the same time, the aesthetics should visually “harmonize” with the acoustic functions. Many historic halls relied on convex curves, lots of decoration, and architectural “filigree” to achieve the style the designer was after while also achieving the desired acoustic performance (sometimes unintentionally so[ii]). Many contemporary spaces utilize what appear to be randomized geometries or complex parametric shapes to achieve a contemporary and awe-inspiring aesthetic and proper acoustic. I prefer a simple, monolithic approach with refined subtle details so that the aesthetics of the architecture don’t compete with the aesthetics of the performance.


Sightlines should be the primary consideration when it comes to seating layout. It is important to always stagger the seating in each row, either by varying the width or as naturally might occur with curved access aisles. This prevents one from having their view totally obscured by the person in front of them, regardless of the floor slope, and helps parents with young children not have to listen to their child’s dismay (read:whining) in not being able to see, even if seated on a lap.

Seating has a large effect on acoustic performance. An empty seat should acoustically perform as if there was a person in the seat, so that a musician is given consistent feedback acoustically whether the audience is full or not – this makes general exposure, upholstery, and back height not only important in terms of finish and comfort, but also acoustic performance of a space.

Access aisles obviously have life-safety implications, and building code closely governs requirements. However, as in all things code-related, this is a “baseline” of performance that facilities should achieve. Row spacing is an important consideration for audience comfort, not just access, as the shortest amount of spacing that “code” may allow may not be comfortable for a six foot tall person like myself. One should be able to enjoy a musician’s work without feeling like they are crammed into an airplane, no matter how much we may miss that lovely in-flight experience.

These formal seating considerations must be balanced and coordinated with an institution’s desired strategy for selling tickets and getting people quickly to their seats (by way of a cash bar or merchandise counter, of course). I always recommend keeping it simple, but plenty of larger and more historic venues have extremely complicated systems of naming levels and sections of seats, and there is unfortunately no universally accepted standard to seat numbering amongst performance spaces. Most venues will go house left to right in numerical order, but some institutions have been known to provide “even” seat numbers in one section of seats, and “odd” seats in the other. This makes it confusing when purchasing two tickets “next” to one another but there appears, numerically, to be a seat in between. It is important to keep the final user in mind with the seating strategy, so that wayfinding is easy and seat numbering is, hopefully, logical.

Seating configuration can get really complicated too. In order to accommodate and adapt to other type of functions and events, some spaces have “flexible” seating arrangements, such as Nashville’s Schermerhorn Laura Turner Concert Hall, where seating can magically disappear to provide a flat-floor space.

Transformation of the Laura Turner Concert Hall in the Schermerhorn Symphony Center from raked seating to a flat floor. Something about this reminds me of the gym-floor “pool” scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Clearly, while some visual aspects of music spaces design are truly based in logistics and operation, but many overlap the space’s main sensibility – that of listening. With these basic visual and logistical aspects covered, we’ll focus more deeply on acoustics for performance spaces in part two of this two-post series. “Tune” back in Thursday for the exciting conclusion.

[i] Actually, the evolution of music is what can be traced back to these cavernous cathedral spaces. It was the sublime architecture that first raised one’s gaze “upward,” and the evolution of music, from chant, to polyphony, to more complex choral works, evolved to fit the space. The specific design St. Joseph’s cathedral was a Beaux-Arts version of this traditional form and it is safe to say that the “evolution” of the music had already occurred, thus the intention is that the space was partly “designed” to carry on this specific tradition of music.

[ii] The geometries of the Musikverien were so astonishingly acoustically successful that Nashville’s Schermerhorn main concert hall, completed in 2006, took great inspiration from the “shoebox” design and was modeled off of the historic Viennese hall. That said, I don’t think the sophisticated seating lift and green exit lighting were part of the European model.

Schermerhorn’s Laura Turner Concert Hall

Chase Kramer is an architect and designer at TSP. He has a strong passion for all the arts, serving on the Sioux Falls Arts Council Board, chairing the Washington Pavilion Visual Arts Center Board, singing with the South Dakota Symphony Chorus, and has been known to dabble in some theatrics from time to time. He is personally and professionally fulfilled by advocating for truth and beauty in all that he does. He lives in Sioux Falls with his wife and 3 children.

One Reply to “Harmonizing – Designing With Music in Mind”

  1. Nice job, Chase. People don’t usually pay attention to the details but certainly complain if something isn’t right.

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