The sound effect of ancient Greek theatrical masks

In this article we present selected parts of the very interesting paper “The sound effect of ancient Greek theatrical masks“, by Fotios Kontomichos, Charalampos Papadakos, Eleftheria Georganti, Thanos Vovolis.

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Abstract All theatrical forms developed in ancient Greece were forms of masked drama. Apart from the obvious change of the visual appearance of the actors, the masks also altered the acoustic characteristics of their voices. Therefore, both from the listener’s and the actor’s points of view these masks significantly modified the acoustic events and inevitably transformed the overall theatrical experience. In this work, we employ recreations of such masks and through controlled experiments, via measurements and simulations, we evaluate their impact on the acoustics of the most typical and famous of the ancient theatres, this one of Epidaurus. Emphasis is given on unraveling the character of the combined acoustics of the voice of masked actor and the response of such a theatre which is famous for its perfect acoustics for speech and drama plays.

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The acoustics of ancient Greek theatres impress experts and the general public alike. Although the significance of acoustics in the public buildings in ancient Greek culture has been investigated using a wide range of contemporary approaches and methodologies, there are aspects related to the ancient theatrical drama, especially with respect to the function of theatrical masks that are still not properly clarified. It is accepted that the ancient Greek theatres represent the earliest example of building acous-tic design to support and enhance speech and music communication, over large public audiences. Therefore these ancient theatres have universal and timeless signifi-cance and if well-preserved, they still attract numerous audiences fulfilling functions similar to those for which they were constructed more than two thousand years ago.

These buildings have a special significance for the heritage of the acoustic science and of the theatrical arts.

Theatre masks were a fundamental element of the ancient Greek theatre tradition. All theatrical forms that origi-nally developed in Athens during the 6th and 5th centuries BC (tragedy, comedy or satyr plays) and eventually spread over the ancient world were forms of masked drama, i.e. the actors always were performing wearing such masks.

Ancient drama was largely based on theatrical speech. According to Aristotle, acting was a matter of voice having three important qualities: volume, harmony and rhythm. All these qualities are especially important for communication in the outdoor theatres. Since the actor’s voice was the most important theatrical element, the mask is considered as an instrument to enhance the voice presence over the entire theatre space and endow the voice with a decided directional delivery. However, up to now such assumption has not been verified. Also, such elevated importance on acoustic presentation must be also seen in conjunction to the reduced dramatic impact of the visual element in the actor’s performance. The mask was displaying a static facial expression, largely functioning as a screen for the audience to project their own emotional state. It is now accepted through the archeological evidence that classical masks had a head-enclosing (helmet) form and the mouth and eyes openings were rather small. However, the method for their construction has not been identified, indicating that these masks were made of perishable materials. Note that such head-enclosing masks apart from transforming the actor’s face, were also altering his voice and changed his self voice perception, especially if the ears were also fully enclosed.

Here it will be examined and confirmed whether the mask amplified the actor’s voice, creating resonances and allowing some control of the direction and the intensity of the voice inside the theatre. The broader functionality of the masks will be also evaluated since it has been also suggested that the mask formed the actor’s personal resonance chamber, connecting him to the resonances of the ancient theatre. Note that the word
theatron means a place to watch, examine and contemplate. It also implies a view,
theoria and is also etymologically connected to the word divinity, theos, and to therapy, therapia. Such a therapeutic function of sound becomes even more relevant to the case of theatrical performances in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus which appears to have been constructed especially for healing purposes.

The combined acoustic effect of mask wearing actor and the acoustics of the theatre is examined here via simulations, utilizing however the measured impulse response functions.


Conclusions The study of the spectral and radiation sound effects of masks employed by actors performing in the typical ancient Greek theatre of Epidaurus, has provided some clear evidence for the acoustic function of such masks that were always used during the ancient drama performances by the (male) actors. Using template masks constructed from archeological evidence, their measured frequency and angle-dependent response was combined with measured acoustic impulse responses of the theatre for various positions. Thus, these simulated tests generated the combined mask-theatre responses and also the corresponding speech sounds at the desired audience positions.

Analysing these combined mask-theatre responses, it was found that the masks amplified the spectral region up to 1000 Hz. This effect was found to be stronger around the male speech fundamental frequency. Given that the theatre responses present a significant peak around the mid 1000 Hz region, the “mask-filter” effect appears somehow to smooth the overall spectral profile of the “theatre-filter”. Furthermore, the masks would alter the actor’s voice by boosting the low-mid region of speech reaching the audience. In addition to that, the masks were found to enhance di-rectivity for the side of the actor’s head and hence amplify significantly such low-mid speech frequency region, for listeners located beyond the central positions and especially at the sides of the cavea. This radiation property of the masks would improve reception at these more problematic audience positions, especially under noisy conditions. However, under normal conditions, the masks were not found to affect the excellent speech intelligibility of the Epidaurus theatre which has remained perfect for all listener positions. Further in-situ impulse response measurements of the masked manikin in the theatre of Epidaurus would be a desirable addition to the present study and are left for future work. Moreover, binaural recordings of a masked actor performing in the theatre may also allow more realistic demonstrations of the acoustic experience of the ancient Greek spectators in such theatres and hence compliment this work.

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(You may access the full paper here:

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides


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