Many believe that designing a space for music instruction need be no more than a high-ceilinged room of regular proportions lined with acoustical panels. Experience shows that there is much more to it than that. Having worked through the planning and detailing of music facilities for several Los Angeles private schools, we have found that the requirements are more complex - especially when the desired outcome is an acoustical environment that functions almost as an instrument itself.
For school administrators thinking of upgrading their existing music room, or building an all-new facility, here is a checklist of important things to consider during the design process.
1. Room size, use, shape and layout.
Music facilities vary according to their purpose. A list of the most common types includes performance halls, recital halls, orchestral & band rehearsal rooms, choral rooms, ensemble rooms, piano labs, group & individual practice rooms and recording studios. Depending on the size of its music program, a school may want to have several of these distinct types of spaces or combine them into a multi-use facility. However, since each type of room has its own acoustical requirements, combining functions may result in compromises.
The design of any music room begins with determining how many people it will serve. How many students and faculty will use the facility on a typical day? What is the maximum number of users anticipated? This information will help determine the amount of floor area needed. The next step is to determine what kinds of activities will happen in the space. Your list might include instructional centers, private rehearsal areas, an instructor's work area or office, instrument cleaning and storage areas, etc. A list of these program activities will lead to a "zoning diagram" of primary room functions that will serve as the basis for the new plan.
Once the room's size and zoning has been determined, the next concern should be the physical shaping of the space. Wall, floor and ceiling surfaces should be configured so sound is distributed evenly. Parallel and concave surfaces should be avoided since they tend to concentrate sound into specific areas and cause interfering reflections.
2. Acoustical separations
Unless the music room is a building unto itself, it will probably be adjacent to other instructional spaces. These might include a loud dance studio, a noisy woodshop or a quiet library. If conflicting adjacencies can't be avoided, then it's important to keep sound contained so each type of instruction can proceed without disrupting the others. This is where correct architectural planning and detailing is critical. Wall, ceiling and floor assemblies should be designed to acoustically separate all conflicting uses. Identifying where such separations will be necessary should happen early in the design process so they can be included in the final construction plans.
3. Internal room acoustics
With strategies in place for good all-room sound distribution and acoustical separations from adjacent spaces, the next question to tackle is: What should the room sound like? Is a rich resonant environment desired or a more hushed space? Perhaps the room needs to allow for both? Another goal might be to create an environment that replicates typical performance settings with the kinds of asymmetries of sound movement and absorption they present.
To help you establish and achieve these objectives your design team should include an Acoustical Engineer. The consultant is the one who will translate your qualitative criteria into quantitative (measurable) specifications for the space. They will set the standards for reverberation times and sound reinforcement and specify appropriate finish materials to meet their criteria. For example, on a recent project our Acoustical Engineer specified a 2-inch thick plaster wall surface (instead of the typical gypsum board) to keep bass frequencies from escaping the room. Mass, in the right places, definitely matters to acoustics. For another project, a flexible system of moveable acoustic panels was specified to provide an adjustable environment. We have found that, for specialized music facilities, the engineer often develops a unique specification for every surface in the room. Finally, once the room is completed, the Acoustical Engineer is the one who returns with measuring equipment to confirm that the space performs as intended.
4. Important performance-support features
In a unique environment like a music room the little things matter - in fact, it's the small specific accommodations that give the space much of its character. Find out from your music faculty what kinds of features they believe are essential for the room to function properly and what things would be desirable to make it "state-of-the-art". The list of essential features will usually include:
- a generous number of power outlets
- a flexible lighting system that supports several rehearsal/performance scenarios
- three or four private practice rooms
- a variety of storage spaces for instruments, risers, chairs, music stands, etc.
- generous counter space with sinks for cleaning instruments
Specialty items that faculty often request in addition to those above, generally fall into the category of "furniture, fixtures and equipment" (FF & E), which brings us to the next topic.
5. Audio visual systems.
Since there is an ever-expanding world of options in audio-visual media, the project team should include a consultant specializing in AV products and installation. At the top of most music-room equipment lists will be a digital, multi-track sound recording and playback system. This is what enables musical performances and compositions to be critically reviewed and recorded for future discussion or broadcast. Another item on the list will probably be a wireless computer network enabling cordless access to the school's campus and internet resources. While the virtues of having these systems are self evident, the specifications for exactly what systems to purchase are not. This is why a trusted consultant is a must.
6. Architectural and engineering consultants
In addition to the AV Consultant and the Acoustical Engineer, other critical members of your design team should include an Architect , a Mechanical Engineer and a Structural Engineer. While a local building contractor may have the resources to get your music facilities permitted and built from your general instructions, it is unlikely they will have experience with the subtle requirements of acoustical performance. The A & E team can bring much deeper knowledge and experience to bear on the design. As has been noted, getting the right architectural and structural details in the right locations is essential to the proper functioning of the space. Likewise, the air conditioning system must be designed to provide a low-noise environment and to avoid unwanted noise and vibration. Having a committed team of professionals caring for the design from start to finish is an important safeguard to getting the project built in a way that meets the highest standards and yields the greatest payoff for your construction budget.
Clearly, there's more to designing instruction-level musical facilities than meets the eye. While it's true that music can be made almost anywhere, the right facilities can make an enormous difference in the quality of a student's understanding, appreciation and performance of music. Creating a place specifically tailored for musical instruction not only demonstrates a school's commitment to musical excellence, it enables students and teachers to reach their full musical potential. Addressing the points listed above when planning your project will help you deliver a flexible music room that eliminates distractions and supports a broad range of musical and teaching formats. This is the best way to ensure the long-term credibility and success of your music program.
If you are interested in learning more about, or discussing, these critical design considerations your comments are welcome.