A Reverberation, Not an Echo

June 2, 2010

Sitting down to review a concert in St. John the Divine and then complaining about its spacious acoustics is about as helpful as writing about water and emphasizing that it’s wet or blaming ice for being too cold (New York Times: “A Chorus of Echoes, for Better and Worse“). Banal in the extreme.

But surely anyone charged with writing about music needs to know the difference between reverberation and an echo — that what she was hearing was not echo but seven seconds of admittedly massive reverberation. An echo of course repeats a sound, whereas reverberation has the effect of sustaining the sound. Having spent much of my career making music in reverberant churches, I have cheerfully pointed out the difference to people who asked how much “echo” there was. It is galling, however, to find that a music writer for the New York Times is in need of such an elementary explanation: except for very special effects, an echo would be musically disastrous, whereas much of the music devised in history depends to a large degree on consistent reverberation for its full effect. (Rock musicians know this perfectly well as they add digital “reverb” — not echo — to their amplified or recorded effects.)

It is perhaps graceless for a humble blogger to point this out, but the continuing decline of newspapers with their claim to special expertise, editorial control, and accuracy would be truly disastrous for music were it not for the at least counterbalancing presence of online media.

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