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Fantasy beings such as dwarves and goblins are often shown playing music underground. However, reading the Planet Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder, he claims that the only sounds that carry well in enclosed environments is choir singing. This is because interior spaces amplify errors, so choir music is best because it drowns out all errors. He also mentions that drums work best in open air environments. Given this, is it really 'realistic' for goblins or other subterranean creatures to be shown playing drums? Wouldn't things like dwarves and goblins actually prefer choir music? That's obviously not something normally associated with either creature.

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    $\begingroup$ "The only sounds that carry well in enclosed environments is choir singing": Which is why organs are never played in large stone cathedrals, and in general symphonic orchestras all play in open air. I wonder why Bach and Mozart even bothered to compose music for religious services. And all those large expensive concert halls were a waste of money and effort. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 15 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ Where didnyou get the notion that dwarves don't sing in choirs? From Discworld's GOLD! song to LOTR's Misty Mountains Cold to Wind Rose's Diggy Diggy Hole (which literally commands the dwarves to sing along), choir singing is probably the most defining cultural trsit for dwarves after living underground, having beards and drinking like the Irish. $\endgroup$ Feb 15 at 18:58
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    $\begingroup$ If inspiration is sought: There's the annual (and very popular) concert in Somerset (UK) in Wookey Hole. I'd missed it when I was there, but it's tailored to the space. Lends itself to ghost stories and tales of witches/the supernatural. $\endgroup$ Feb 15 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ it's just a bigger bathroom $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Feb 16 at 1:36
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    $\begingroup$ Choir singing is a dwarf trait indoors or out..... hiho hiho it's off to work we go $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Feb 16 at 2:12

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I once had a neighbour living on the apartment (kinda like a cave but more open) right below mine who would throw parties and play the most horrible music between midnight and 3 or 4 AM on weekends. I asked him a few times to cut that out, or at least to be less loud. That was in a time and place where calling the police wouldn't help. So I turned to a priest for help: Judas Priest.

The intro to the Painkiller is divinity in the form of drums, and has the power to drive away the demons from hell when played at 180 dB or louder. It also drives away animals and humans who are, but still.

I only needed to summon the Angel of Deaf once. Turned my speakers to the floor and let them blast... My neighbour came to my door within minutes, begging me to stop. So did some other tenants, whom I saw as innocent colateral damage in my holy war (they later thanked me for silencing the original troublemaker). I told my enemy I had as much right to my music as he had to his. And that settled it. We never had any more problems again, and just like in the song, the Painkiller returned from Armagedddon to the skies.

Who says the dwarves are playing those drums to themselves? Banging drums and cymbals like your life depends on it keeps the caves free of the sensitive-eared kobolds with much less bloodshed (only their eardrums have to bleed).

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LDutch answer is right about that reverberation is a real challenge when playing in an enclosed space. However, humans have been playing music in enclosed spaces for centuries and music in our theatres and concert halls sounds quite right, even when not amplified.

That's because architectural acoustics is a science devoted to overcome such a challenge, and to design and build halls to harness sound reflections in order to direct the sound to the audience while dampening the reflections that could produce unwanted reverberation. And before architectural acoustics had scientific foundations, architects knew some experience derived rules about how to build a good theatre or concert hall.

A cave isn't different than the interior of a building. If goblins like to play drums, I would expect goblin architects to have become experts on how to acoustically condition a cave in order to make drums sound fine there, and I would expect goblin drummers and composers to have mastered the use of reverberations in caves to further their artistic goals.

And it has been mentioned that bare rock is highly reflective to sound, but I wouldn't expect and underground civilisation (even a caveman level one) to use only bare rock. I would expect them to be able to put tapestry or skins in the walls or even to build double walls with sound absorbent materials, and a lot more things than can change radically the acoustic characteristics of a cave.

We should remember that most music studios are just like a little cave in a basement, but a very well conditioned cave.

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    $\begingroup$ "most music studios are just like a little cave in a basement, but a very well conditioned cave" - 'nuff said $\endgroup$
    – automaton
    Feb 16 at 16:55
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I play drums in my free time, so first hand experience: playing drums in the open has the advantage of carrying the sound away (maybe your neighbors will see it differently) without the problem of reverb. As an anecdote, I have played on a plateau right above a valley few hundred meters deep, motorcyclists would stop in a rest area 1 km away from where we were playing just to listen to our drumming.

On the other hand playing inside without measure to dampen the reverb is a nightmare, because soon you won't be able to tell the difference between the melody you are trying to play and the reverb of what you played before.

Caves, with their hard rocky surface, are a perfect environment for reverb and therefore an awful environment for drumming and for music in general.

Dwarves are famous for their choir singing while guzzling beer, so stick to that.

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    $\begingroup$ Cathedrals, "with their hard rocky surface, are a perfect environment for reverb and therefore an awful environment for [...] for music in general". Whever has ever listened to an organ concert in one of those horrible stone cathedrals knows how terrible and muddy the music sounds. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 15 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP right, this youtube.com/shorts/Z7KOX53pc-0 is not reverb... $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Feb 15 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ Well, that room was not designed for a singer to sing in that position. On the other hand, the reverberation is this piece sounds very pleasant to my ears. (Noticeable on the powerful bass, and clearly well taken into account by the composer and the organist. But note the fast passage beginning at 1:07. Not all that much muddying of the notes.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 15 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP - that wasn't sarcasm? Both of those sound beautiful. It's drum sets outside, w/o 10k watts of amp behind them, that sound like crap. A "problem of reverb"? The problem is when it sounds empty. There's no DAW setting for make it sound outside. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Feb 16 at 4:57
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP I've done sound for gigs in plenty of spaces with hard surfaces. I dreaded it, because the effect of the spaces was universally awful. The issue isn't just being designed for music. It needs to be designed for specific locations for sound producers and sound consumers, and for a specific type of music which responds to that type of reverb. Specifically, anything fast with more than one distinct pattern at once is basically screwed. In my experience they are always awful for music in general, but they do work well for some particular music. It's a case of matching them up. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Feb 16 at 12:24
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The reverberation inherent in the caves is not a problem if your music has tempo and beat on a timescale longer than the reverberation.

This is why one can play slow harmony transitions all day long in a natural cave or in a temple.

On the social side, music like this will be distinctly heard kilometers away (assuming human ears) so the event is more or less city-wide.

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Sure it is, it all depends on the scale of the "caves" these creatures live in. In many worlds these creatures live in underground dwellings with cavities that rival our largest cathedrals in terms of enclosed space. You would be hard-pressed to not call those "open air". In fact, if they architecturially change the interior of the caves they live in at all they could make caves of any acoustic quality at all so I have no reason to think they would be limited in instrument choice to any meaningful degree.

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    $\begingroup$ Sound in cathedrals isn't "open air" in any way whatsoever. You'd need a lot bigger space than that. Even just a cliff outside, you need to be a good distance away before you can't hear the effect of sound bouncing back to you. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Feb 16 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking spaces much larger than the interior of our cathedrals as seen in, for example, the Lord of the Rings series. The dwarves have interior spaces which are orders of magnitude more enclosed space than our largest buildings, which definitely get close to being considered open air. $\endgroup$ Feb 16 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ The issue is less the volume of space, and more the distance to the nearest surface - including vertical as an option. The height of dwarf halls in LotR is pretty similar to the height of a cathedral. It'll sound basically the same. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Feb 17 at 23:08
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They would do their music in designated recreation areas for it, where either the acoustics are naturally (or with some help) excellent. Or where there is a huge cavern that makes it viable without problems with reverberations and plenty of space for performers and audience.

They won't be taking a drum into a tiny hole in the wall cave and playing.

But singing is what dwarves are known for, from Snow White onwards. No instrument necessary.

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Think of the cave as a contributor to the music. Every chamber has its preferred tones and resonant frequencies. If you play music, including drums, inside a cave, the cave will play along with you. The cave itself can be an instrument accompanying what your dwarves are playing. The dwarves can tune the instrument and shape the sound by careful grinding and shaping of the rock.

In fact there's a real life example of this: the Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns. Stalactites were carefully ground until they produced the desired tones, and they are struck with rubber mallets to produce a sound like a marimba. I've been there while it was played, and it's quite beautiful. There are other instruments made of rock; look up Lithophone for more. Saying a cave is an awful place to play music is like saying a hollow wooden block is an awful instrument: likely true if you found it in the forest, but completely false if you've carefully shaped it into a cello.

There's no significant difference between choir singing and any other tonal sound; in fact some people think the reason that stringed instruments are considered beautiful is because they have a similar frequency composition to human singing.

Almost all drums have some tonal component to them. Even highly atonal instruments like snares can be thought of as mixes of many, many individual tones. Playing these drums will cause the cave to respond at its various resonant frequencies, in proportion to the intensities of those frequencies in the sound of the drums. I expect that creative cave-dwellers would find all sorts of interesting ways to tweak different cave chambers to "respond" to their preferred instruments in striking ways. You could carefully carve acoustic resonators and echo chambers that have precise timing, altering the sound with effects real music producers intentionally use all the time. Careful positioning of the instruments could completely change the listening experience, as would careful positioning of the listener.

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