Walls and Ceiling


Featured in School Planning & Management

By Regan Shields Ives, Ben Markham

“I have taught in a cafeteria, in a classroom, even in a hallway,” said Cheryl Mancini, choir director at Methuen High School, in Methuen, Mass. Mancini’s experience is hardly unique: even schools that have dedicated music space sometimes have little more than a single, slightly oversized classroom to share among the music programs. Poorly designed teaching environments can get in the way of teaching and learning music, and can even lead to dangerously high sound levels that can damage students’ and teachers’ hearing. There is a better way: planning or retrofitting band and choral rooms requires just four basic principles of good music rehearsal room design, as illustrated here with real examples of recent public school building projects.

Methuen High School Band Room

1. Room to Bloom

Beware, smaller does not equal quieter. Fifteen musicians in a small rehearsal room produce roughly the same decibel level as a 100-person orchestra in a concert hall. How is this possible? Smaller rooms are louder rooms. The walls and ceilings are closer in, reflecting a greater level of sound energy, simply because the sound does not have the time and space to dissipate the way that it does in a larger room. Band, choral and orchestral rehearsal rooms need a more generous volume than a typical classroom, for several reasons:

  • – to prevent excessive loudness, and protect the hearing of students and teachers;
    – to promote good balance, so students can learn to listen to themselves and each other;
    – and so the music director can hear the ensemble, as a whole as well as individual sections.

Some good rules of thumb for sizing a rehearsal room:

  • – approximately 30 square feet per instrumental musician or 15 to 20 square feet per choral singer. Roughly half of this space is for the ensemble itself, with the balance of the space at the perimeter of the ensemble;
    – a generous ceiling height —18 to 26 feet. A lower ceiling is suitable for small ensembles (18 feet for 10 musicians); a higher ceiling is needed for large ensembles (26 feet for 100 musicians).

The ceiling height is particularly key, as the ceiling surface is critical for reflecting and dispersing sound energy across the room. The particular makeup of materials on the ceiling and walls is also important.

Methuen High School Auditorium
2. Absorption and Diffusion

Rehearsal rooms are by definition smaller than concert halls, therefore it is necessary to include sound absorbing finishes to control loudness.

The magnitude of sound-absorbing surface required depends on the room use and on the room size. Band rooms tend to have somewhat greater areas of absorption than choir rooms, and smaller rooms need more absorption than larger ones in order to control loudness and provide sound definition. In rooms that serve multiple ensembles and uses, variable acoustics (most typically in the form of retractable curtains) can be beneficial.

Diffusing surfaces are important as well: bumps, zigzags, pilasters, shelves and other shaping on ceilings and walls that helps to break up sound reflections and distribute sound throughout the space. The band room at Concord-Carlisle High School, in Concord, Mass., has pyramidal shapes on the ceiling and barrel shapes on wall surfaces. At Methuen High School, diffusion was built into the shaping of the lower walls.

For the ceiling, a roughly 50/50 mix of absorption and reflection is often appropriate. This can take the form of a checkerboard ceiling pattern, an absorptive ceiling with suspended sound-reflecting surfaces, or other approaches. For wall surfaces, absorptive surfaces should usually occupy between 20 percent and 50 percent of the wall area, depending on room size and use. Further, unlike speech, music is rich in low-frequency (bass) sounds, so the sound absorbing and diffusing materials must be selected to be effective not only in the speech frequencies but at lower frequencies as well. This typically means thicker, deeper materials (several inches thick) or materials suspended away from structure (such as suspended ceilings).

Full article here.