Where does an outdoor audience begin and end?
By Katherine Araya Riffo
This picture was taken at a Summer Friday concert at the Frick, an outdoor concert series that features jazz, blues, country, and pop fusion bands. This photograph offers us insight into the complex ways that audiences interact with outdoor music performances. First, notice that the band is playing in a delimited space. This works as a boundary for the band and tells listeners not to trespass. Second, in the center-right of the picture, notice that a person is talking on the phone during the concert. He doesn’t appear to be listening to the performance at all. Would the neighboring listeners be bothered by his conversation? Third, in the middle-left of the photo, notice a woman walking with a stroller and a girl. The sound of their movement also does not seem to disturb anybody in the audience. Finally, on the far left, four seated people looking away from the performers, although they appear to be listening to the concert. These examples show that outdoor concerts are filled with motion and audience noises, yet these actions appear welcome in this environment.
Notice that when the musicians are playing, you only hear the amplified music, but not the man on the cell phone or the stroller rattling by. Once the music ends, however, the background comes into focus, including birds chirping and people talking. During the amplified performance, outdoor audiences feel freedom to make noises—eating, talking to other people, talking on the phone, walking with a stroller—because their noises will not disturb others when veiled by the loudness of speakers. This environment is what sound scientist R. Murray Schafer calls a “lo-fi” soundscape, where the environment is filled with a high-density collection of sounds and quieter noises cannot be heard distinctly. In a city, for instance, the sound of traffic might muffle chirping birds. Outdoor concerts, therefore, provide a place where people have more freedom to move and make noises without overpowering the concert.
In the following clip, you will hear the sound of the precise scene shown above:
Field recording of Swingtet 8 performing at Frick Summer Fridays (2022)
The amplified performance also presents another conundrum about outdoor concerts—where does the audience end? In the following figure, I have calculated the change in decibel level from the source (the jazz band speakers) to the surrounding area.
50 Meters 61 dB
100 Meters 55 dB
200 Meters 49 dB
Concerts like this are subject to the noise regulations issued by the Pittsburgh, PA Code of Ordinances which states that “the maximum allowable noise created by loudspeakers, audio amplification devices, and other similar devices is 75 dB or 3 above the background sound level, whichever is greater.” As the graph shows, the Summer Fridays easily meet these parameters. However, the figure also shows how people outside the Frick grounds might also be considered part of the “audience.” Here are some comparisons to better understand the decibel levels: If you are standing 50 meters (160 ft) from the band, the music would sound as loud as a normal conversation is between 60 and 80 dB. If you are standing 100 meters (330 ft) away, the performance would be as loud as a normal conversation. And, at 200 meters (650 ft), you would hear the music as loud as a dishwasher machine. A whisper is only 25.
Outdoor concerts are completely different from indoor concerts. The fresh air, the people talking, the cars, and the background noise from the city itself are factors that shape the sound and atmosphere of an outdoor concert. They may even influence who is listening, and who is not!