Classical Music The Old Fashioned Way...Unamplified!

Friday, July 23, 2010 - 02:23 PM

This week, I attended the third Naumburg Orchestral Concert of the summer season in Central Park. And, it made me start to wonder...

When the bandshell was built in 1923 the design was considered to be quite innovative through its use of a double shell construction technique. The outer half-domed shell is the weather shield. The smaller inner half-dome throws the sound out towards the audience. In its day the shell distributed the music so that an audience of from 50,000 to 70,000 persons could enjoy it.

Today sophisticated sound systems are used for performances in the bandshell. And yet the audiences are much smaller. The orchestral concerts, for instance, attract about 1,000 people per performances. 

I’m not sure I understand why amplification is used so often today. Is it habit at this point or is it really necessary? I feel the same way about the old--wonderfully intimate--Broadway houses here in New York. Those stages were built long before the days of amplification. And for the most part I would rather not see a show that has enhanced sound.

So, tell me--am I being unrealistic? Am I old fashioned? Is it impossible to perform effectively today without a microphone?

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Comments [27]


Great post -- just came across it today.

I don't think that just classical music is over-amplified these days either. Jazz, blues, folk and countless other genres once got by without it. The players just simply knew how to level their own volumes to each other and could project.

I'm not against amplification where need be (certain genres, certain venues or crowd sizes), but obligatory amplification on every instrument even in the smallest venues is just obnoxious.

Apr. 24 2011 06:28 AM

i was listening today ...George Enescu,Romanian Rapsory....since when its a Gypsy simphony ????please miss.Woolsey get your facts in order....ITS ROMANIAN NOT GYPSY you (probably with out knowing) are insulting our nation). please learn that Romanians are Romanians and Gypsys are just that Gypsys....they are living allover Europe will you call the Fr. people Gypsy just because Bizet asociation with Carmen ? you?

Apr. 01 2011 02:16 PM
Robert Jones

I would like to reply to Wayne: So where is this "subtle" amplification. Everywhere I go it seems quite loud. You mention "noise pollution and the high decible levels of music we listened to in the 70s and 80s. " It seems to me a big part of the noise pollution IS the high decible levels of the music played in many public places today. If this is "a bridge to a modern audience", someone needs to start pushing for another approach.
For myself, for years now I've endeavored to minimize the amount of money I spend in places that impose loud music on the public.

Aug. 28 2010 02:32 PM

Amplification is a bridge to a modern audience. Singers need not have visible mics in the way of body mics or stands. The amplification can be subtle and certainly not overpowering. Systems that fill dead spaces in venues, even out the sound are easily accepted by all but a handfull of purists. Another factor to consider for embracing new technology and innovation is the dramatic increaase in hearing loss in America. We are paying for noise pollution and the high decible levels of music we listened to in the 70s and 80s.

Aug. 24 2010 11:20 PM
John Goodwin from Demarest, NJ

Midge, Thanks for bringing this up. Like many towns Demarest, NJ has Summer outdoor concerts. They are always amplified but they need not be. Last week I did something I have never done before. I stayed for two songs & fled. The high degree of amplification was painful to me and I could not stay. The Times recently ran an article about the high number of teenagers with hearing loss. No wonder.

Aug. 22 2010 07:35 PM
arden Anderson-Broecking from Fairfield County, CT

Amplification cons the hearer. The sound man who fiddles around with his buttons and knobs can make a really medicore singer sound good. I'm thinking particualrly of pop singers, of course. There's no need or excuse for amplifying a truly great voice.
If a singer is properly trained and has a solid echnique, he or she knows exactly how to focus the voice has no need for amplification, unless of course, they are singing the Natinal Anthem at Yankee Stadium! (I wish someone at WQXR would address the mangling and distortion of that piece, by the way, which would not be tolerated in any other country!)

Aug. 22 2010 09:29 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

The advantage of un-amplified music is that we hear the actual timbre of the individual instruments and the individual singers. Modern day audiences are so used to hearing highly amplified music that they do not realize that most untrained singers, without that support, would be inaudible. Opera singers and classically trained lieder singers' voices "carry" well, even in the large spaces. I have sung in outdoor stadiums without amplification and have been heard clearly by audience members who played back to me recordings made at the just concluded concert, immediately after the performance, brief excerpts. The proper vocal technique and, of course, the strong healthy voice, are essential for vast-sized auditoriums or outdoor stadiums.

Aug. 11 2010 08:38 PM
Rob Schachter from Indianapolis

Since Mozart's music wonderfully amplifies reality why would anyone amplify the amplifier?

Aug. 02 2010 11:39 AM
Samuel Lo Dolce from New York City

Amplified sound (in Opera) is NOT Opera!

Jul. 31 2010 10:40 PM
Harry from Brooklyn

Midge, I am one of the few people alive who actually heard a Broadway star unamplified -- Ethel Merman in HELLO DOLLY. All her fellow cast members were miked and the engineers went berserk when she wandered close to one of them. But I can attest that a voice -- albeit an exceptional voice -- can fill the St. James Theatre unaided.

It's also true that Lincoln Center's Met Opera, Philharmonic Hall, and Koch Theatre usually use no amplification at all. Ditto Carnegie Hall except, in all cases, when electronic equipment and cables are clearly visible on stage (and usually acknowledged in the program).

But in most cases, I fear, you are closing the door not only after the horses are gone but also after the barn has burned down. Most popular and Broadway singers learn their trade with a microphone; most audience members are accustomed to hearing amplified voices. Modern music and the increasingly diminished Broadway pit "orchestras" depend heavily on electronic instruments, and the singers need mikes to be sure the music is in balance. The performers usually wear earpieces so that they can blend with the electronic mix.

I once asked a representative of the Manhattan Theatre Club why they used body mikes and amplification in a 120-seat house, roughly the size of the Greene Space. She had two answers. First, the composer, who wrote the score for a rock band, insisted on it. Second, the audience is accustomed to amplified sound. The company received no complaints about amplified musicals, but its dramas (unamplified) drew dozens of complaints every night.

Jul. 31 2010 01:08 AM

Microphones,amplifiers and sound mixers , along with gadgets like lapel mikes and music makers and god alone knows what else have taken music appreciation to the depths of decibels and ear shattering blasts.Voice culture has died. every one is a crooner these days.
I am also old fashioned to prefer listening to the full range of orchestral nuances, timbre, and intensity in auditoria built for acoustic excellence.
It is about time we encurage seriously salon culture back.

Jul. 29 2010 10:26 PM
Michael Meltzer

Add to previous:
House of the Redeemer (Fabbri Chamber Series), Good Shepherd Presbyterian (Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players), St. Bartholomew's, St. Luke-in-the-Fields.
Just about everything mentioned, here and below, is usually unamplified.

Jul. 29 2010 02:32 AM
Michael Meltzer

to Nancy Whyte:
Happily, there actually is plenty of good quality live music in the old churches of NYC, it's just harder to keep abreast of since the NY Times decided it was too busy to keep up the column they used to run in the Sunday paper, listing all the musical events for the coming week.
There's a nice e-bulletin from an umbrella group called Gotham Early Music Scene (G.E.M.S.), there are series' during most of the year at Trinity Wall Street, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Christ & St. Stephen's, Holy Trinity Lutheran, St. Ignatius Loyola, Corpus Christi R.C. and several more. It's a little more work and Googling to learn what's going on, but although the admission prices vary, it's always a lot more affordable than Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center.

Jul. 29 2010 01:49 AM
Nancy Whyte from New York City

One summer night in Venice, my husband, daughter, and I went to a performance of "The Four Seasons" (Vivaldi, of course). It was performed in an old church, and the music floated and echoed through the space, and was thrilling. This, I realized, was the first time I had heard the music more as the composer assumed it would be heard without false amplification, and, worse still "mixing" or "blending". I realized what we all miss with all our modern technology.

Jul. 28 2010 05:20 PM
Len Friedland

Amplified music has it's place. Rock and roll makes artistic use of electric guitars, synthesizers, etc., which makes it a distinct art form. Therefore, in my opinion, most of that music should be played in its original form: amplified.

By the same token, classical music should remain unamplified during performances. One is listening to nuances, such as the timbre of a fine violin, the mix and placement of the instruments, the emotions of the soprano's voice, the special acoustics of that particular hall, the "air". Such delicacy cannot be simulated by any amplification today, though that might be the unattainable aim of the electronics designers. Therefore, much of the emotional content of the performance is lost both when captured and when projected during amplification.

Thank you SO MUCH for blogging your opinion on this. I agree wholeheartedly. Music is comprised of more than just the notes themselves. If the performance is to be amplified, I'd rather stay home and listen to it using my own amplification.

Jul. 27 2010 12:20 PM
Paul Nagy from Charlottesvile VA

I agree that amplification of music of all sorts is becoming offensive. Did I say "becoming"?
Even those cuties from Ireland whom you see on TV are equipped with little mikes sticking out in front of their faces.
Thank God that orchestras, such as the BSO which is the only one I am really familiar with, don't use amplification (though I'm not so sure about the Tanglewood concerts) and, of course the Met opera doesn't either.

In short, I agree, Midge and am pleased to be a new listener to you and WQXR (via streaming).

Jul. 27 2010 12:14 PM
Linda Pleven from NYC

Like you, Midge, I am anti-amp. It's blaring, it distorts the music and wedges a distance between the artist and the audience. I love Bill Charlap, for example, but was so disappointed in the murkiness that loud amplification created when I heard him at the 92nd St. Y last summer. I will never go there again to hear music of any kind. Finally, I try to hear all music, classical and pop, where minimal or no amplification is used.

Jul. 27 2010 08:01 AM
christopher padula from new jersey

every music evolves... why should classical music not do the same. there will always be those who remain true to the origins of an art... they should be encouraged... those who want to push the rules should be encouraged as well... my friend joshua ( is a composer that not only uses amplification but electronics as well and i do not think it's any afrontery to the standards. it didn't stop him from getting accepted into his phd program.

Jul. 26 2010 06:28 PM
Donald Kane from Brooklyn

Except for the Opera and live concerts of classical music, [as far as we know], there
is no unamplified music any more. All
popular music is amplified, alll Broadway
shows are amplified; you have to be at least 55 or 60 years old to have heard music any other way. Unfortunately, the
ears of anyone younger are therefore so
accustomed to the relentless din that the
sound of natural unenhanced music would
be difficult for them to enjoy. There's no
such thing as "soft music", anymore
except maybe in an elevator, which brings
up the subject of unwanted music . . . but let's not go there. Also, in those bygone
days, you expected to have to listen to
music more attentively than audiences do
now. Live music was an event, not the
soundtrack of our lives.

Jul. 26 2010 03:03 PM
Thomas Bias from Sparta, NJ

I'm with Midge. As much as possible, I like ALL my music (not just classical) to be strictly acoustic. It's kind of like the difference between a freshly made salad, in which each vegetable retains its own flavor and texture, and one that's been sitting around too long that turns into a mush.

I remember taking my wife to hear "Madama Butterfly" at the NY City Opera. Marilyn Zschau sang the title role and her "Un Bel Dì" was magnificent—her fortissimo ending towered over the huge orchestra that a Puccini opera calls for. As we were going to the parking garage after the performance, I mentioned that Ms. Zschau had not been miked in the least. My wife thought that was the most amazing thing she'd ever heard.

Jul. 26 2010 02:45 PM
James from New York, NY

I am not, nor have I ever been, a fan of amplified music, particularly with respect to opera and orchestral perfomances. Interestingly enough, I do not believe that I have been to a recital, voice or instrumental, in the last 60 years I have been attending them which have been amplified. That said, I am also disgusted at Broadway shows with their horrible distortion of voices, words and music.

Jul. 26 2010 02:35 PM

Well Midge....I'm SURE that when Edwin Franko led his marching band at the Central Park band shell.....he needed NO amplification. (Or for that matter, the March King himself when he performed) Could you imagine hearing '' THE LIBERTY BELL'' or ''WASHINGTON POST'' march done using extra amplification?? Not a chance....too much spirit.....too much passion for microphones. (Maybe next summer, I'll join you Midge when a great American band is performing....something Sousa....something like 'STARS & STRIPES FOREVER''....and your smile will show the amplification

Jul. 26 2010 02:15 PM
Stephen Forgione from Bayonne, NJ

I have long enjoyed your broadcasts and commentaries both on Public Television and radio. You have brought up a topic that I wondered about for years.
How can you go to a live performance and end up hearing the sounds of a recording when you pay to hear it live. I guess the acoustics in a concert or symphony space can make amplified music and voice sound better and the equipment which is used can also enhance the sound. But can all of this equipment and acoustics actuall recreate live sound. The debate is ongoing. I would think that it is much easier to hear the full orchastra unamplified than the human voice, but I feel the true sound is always the natural unassisted sound. The singers at the Met are incredible because they can do this.

Jul. 26 2010 12:00 PM
Michael Meltzer

Just to add, good ensemble comes from players and/or singers listening to each other as they perform, and making fine adjustments in volume, timbre and overall balance as they go.
If the amplified sound feeds back to the performers to compete with the real sound they're getting directly from each other, "good ensemble" is dead in the water.

Jul. 26 2010 05:05 AM
Michael Meltzer

The performers, whether singers or instrumentalists, who can be heard in a large space, are those whose tone production is rich in overtones. The problem there is that usually makes their tone distinctive and "different." Enter the intruder, the "Pre-Critic," the sound engineer, whose intrusion is required if the sound is amplified or recorded. The sound engineer will invariably rectify the tone unusually laden with overtones to standardize it, thinking he or she is removing distortion.
The only exception I can think of is Max Wilcox, who recorded Artur Rubinstein.

Jul. 23 2010 10:08 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

The advantage of un-amplified music is that we hear the actual timbre of the individual instruments and the individual singers. Modern day audiences are so used to hearing highly amplified music that they do not realize that most , untrained singers, without that support would be inaudible. Opera singers and classically trained lieder singers' voices "carry" well, even in the large spaces.

Jul. 23 2010 08:32 PM
Robert Jones


Jul. 23 2010 02:47 PM

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