Digital Humanities: Digital Humanities Advancement Grants

Period of Performance

12/1/2018 - 1/31/2022

Funding Totals

$50,000.00 (approved)
$50,000.00 (awarded)

Hearing Bach's Music As Bach Heard It

FAIN: HAA-261258-18

American University (Washington, DC 20016-8200)
Braxton Boren (Project Director: January 2018 to present)

The recreation of acoustic conditions of the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig, where J.S. Bach worked as a concert master, to better understand the relationship between the acoustic clarity of the physical space and Bach’s compositions.

Research on J. S. Bach has revealed new insights into the clarity and intimacy of Bach’s music as it was originally performed, including the possibility that Bach’s repertoire at Leipzig was mainly performed with only four singers in the choir. But Bach’s music was also profoundly shaped by the notable acoustics of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where he spent the last 27 years of his life. The church was altered during the Lutheran Reformation to improve the acoustics of the spoken word, which also increased the acoustic clarity for Bach’s works two centuries later. This project will use physical measurements and computer simulations to recreate the acoustic conditions as they existed both during Bach’s time as well as the more reverberant pre-Reformation church. Using this data, we will record a Bach cantata inside the virtual Thomaskirche, both in Bach’s time and before. This will allow us to examine the relationship between the acoustic clarity of the church and Bach's music.

Media Coverage

This American University Professor Won a Grant to Bring Bach’s Acoustics to Life (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Elliot Williams
Publication: Washingtonian
Date: 9/5/2018
Abstract: Q&A about NEH Digital Humanities Grant project with Washingtonian Magazine.

What Did Bach Sound Like to Bach? (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Paula Wasley
Publication: HUMANITIES
Date: 3/31/2020

Operation Bach: Musicians Go Virtual in a Labor of Love (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Barbara Rose Shuler
Publication: Monterrey Herald
Date: 7/24/2020

Associated Products

Author: Braxton Boren
Author: Daniel Abraham
Author: Rogerio Naressi
Author: Elizabeth Grzyb
Author: Brandie Lane
Author: Daniel Merceruio
Abstract: Since room acoustics profoundly affect musicians’ performance style, renderings of early music should account for historical acoustics as well as instrument design and ensemble size. This paper describes the the recording process for the project Hearing Bach’s Music as Bach Heard It, which uses acoustic measurements and geometric acoustic modeling to render the soundscape of Bach’s Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany in 1539 and 1723, the year Bach arrived. This historical model was used to calculate section-to-section binaural impulse responses for each section of musicians on a Bach cantata. Using real-time convolution and close-miking, the musicians were recorded while performing in the virtual church at both time periods, with audible differences between the two. Some discussion follows as to the optimal method for arranging dry multitrack recordings of historical works when separate anechoic chambers are not available for each musician.
Date: 09/01/2019
Primary URL:
Conference Name: 1st EAA Spatial Audio Signal Processing Symposium (SASP)

Acoustical and architectural history of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Acoustical and architectural history of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig
Author: Braxton Boren
Author: Jackson Anthony
Abstract: The Thomaskirche in Leipzig has a rich musical and cultural history, marked not only by its association with the Lutheran Reformation in the 16th century but especially by the tenure of J.S. Bach as cantor from 1723-1750. The church’s interior has undergone several renovations of differing magnitudes since the earliest building constructed in the 12th century. In the 20th century, acoustician Hope Bagenal and Bach biographer C.S. Terry argued that the architectural modifications made by the Lutheran Reformers in the 16th century directly affected Bach’s compositional palette by reducing the reverberation time and allowing more polyphonic and temporal variation in the liturgical works composed for the space. Here the history of the building and its renovations are presented, as well as acoustical measurements in the current church, which has been renovated since Bagenal’s time to more accurately match the interior as it existed in Bach’s time. Some comments are provided Bagenal’s theory as well as the effect of the material and geometric changes made by the Reformers on the performance of Bach’s music during his lifetime.
Date: 09/09/2019
Primary URL:
Conference Name: International Congress on Acoustics (ICA2019)

Word and Mystery: The Acoustics of Cultural Transmission During the Protestant Reformation (Article)
Title: Word and Mystery: The Acoustics of Cultural Transmission During the Protestant Reformation
Author: Braxton Boren
Abstract: To a first-order approximation we can place most worship services on a continuum between clarity and mystery, depending on the setting and content of the service. This liturgical space can be thought of as a combination of the physical acoustics of the worship space and the qualities of the sound created during the worship service. A very clear acoustic channel emphasizes semantic content, especially speech intelligibility. An immersive, reverberant acoustic emphasizes mystery and music. One of the chief challenges in acoustical design is the fact that both clarity and immersion are subjectively preferred by audiences, yet these two goals are almost mutually exclusive of one another. The movement along this continuum in liturgical space can also be seen in the religious contexts for many of the worship spaces constructed in the West in the last two millennia. In the case of religious ceremony, a free field acoustic environment provides more clarity and precision in the spoken word received from God and given to the congregation. Yet a diffuse field environment provides an embodied, otherworldly sense of the supernatural: the mystery of the faith received which cannot merely be put into words. This tension is perceptible in many of the religious controversies in the West during this time period. This article examines the history of the spaces used by early Western Catholic Christians as well as those of the traditions—Lutheran and Calvinist—that left the Catholic faith during the 16th century Reformation. By considering the stated goals of these traditions alongside the architectural and liturgical innovations they created, it can be seen that emergent liturgical spaces mirror the assumptions of their respective traditions regarding the proper balance between semantic and aesthetic communication during the worship service.
Year: 2021
Primary URL:
Access Model: Open Access
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: Frontiers in Psychology
Publisher: Frontiers

Acoustic simulation of J.S. Bach’s Thomaskirche in 1723 and 1539 (Article)
Title: Acoustic simulation of J.S. Bach’s Thomaskirche in 1723 and 1539
Author: Braxton Boren
Abstract: This paper investigates an early acoustical theory of Hope Bagenal about the Leipzig Thomaskirche, where J.S. Bach composed and conducted from 1723 to 1750. Bagenal predicted that the church had a shorter reverberation time than previously in Bach’s time as a result of the Lutheran alterations to the space in the 16th century. This study uses on-site measurements to calibrate a geometric acoustical model of the current church. The calibrated model is then altered to account for the state of the church in 1723 and 1539. Simulations predict that the empty church in 1723 had a T30 value nearly one second lower than today, while the empty church in 1539 was much more reverberant than today. However, when the fully occupied church is simulated across all time periods, the difference in T30 is much smaller, with values at 1 kHz ranging from 2.7s in 1539, 2.5s in the present day, and 2.3s in 1723. These empirical data are crucial for understanding the historical setting of Bach’s music as heard by its original congregation and by its composer.
Year: 2021
Primary URL:
Access Model: Open Access
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: Acta Acustica
Publisher: EDP Sciences

Recording in a Virtual Eighteenth-Century Church (Book Section)
Title: Recording in a Virtual Eighteenth-Century Church
Author: Braxton Boren
Author: Daniel Abraham
Author: Rogerio Naressi
Author: Michael Connaughton
Editor: Miram Kolar
Editor: David Lubman
Abstract: (submitted March 2022 to peer reviewers)
Year: 2022
Publisher: Acoustical Society of America Press/Springer
Book Title: Archaeoacoustics