Have you planned your summer family vacation yet? If not, this year try giving a thought to places you and the kids would like to hear as well as see. That’s the advice given by the British acoustic engineer Trevor Cox in his new book, “The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World,” reviewed in a recent New York Times article. In Cox’s book, he writes that “to overlook sound is to render the story of ancient monuments incomplete.” He also argues that you could work your way through every item on a typical bucket list and still miss out on some of the world’s great marvels.
Cox instead, says The Times, “lets his ears guide him on an adventure to track down the quirky, extreme and historically venerated phenomena of our sonic universe. In the process, he makes a lucid and passionate case for a more mindful way of listening to and engaging with musical, natural and man-made sounds.”
Not every reader will want to follow Mr. Cox as he splashes around a Victorian sewer, noting how the sound of his speech spins around the inside of the curved walls “like a motorcyclist performing in a Wall of Death.” Nor will they be able to squeeze through a pipe, as he does, into an abandoned storage tank deep inside a Scottish hillside that once held seven million gallons of shipping oil (the tank is in the “Guinness Book of World Records” as the world’s most reverberant space).
Luckily for most of us, you don’t need to be an acoustic engineer to be awed by the singing sands of the Kelso Dunes in California’s Mojave Desert (caused by an avalanche of very dry sand down a steep slope) or by the cascading roar of the sea inside Fingal’s Cave in Scotland, which inspired Mendelssohn to compose his “Hebrides” overture.
Cox also plays with, and explains, the acoustics of whispering galleries like that of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London or the one outside the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, where if you stand at opposite corners and face into the walls, you can whisper and someone listening in the opposite corner can hear you clearly.
Burrowing further back in time, Cox introduces recent research into archeo-acoustics. Visitors to the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá in Mexico can observe a squawking echo produced by the stairs leading up the Pyramid of Kukulkan, which seem to turn the sound of hands clapping into the chirp of the quetzal bird. Design or accident? And is it a coincidence, Cox poses, that in the caves of Font-de-Gaume and Lascaux in France, prehistoric drawings of loud animals like horses, bulls and bison are clustered in pockets of high sound reflection, while drawings of cats adorn the quieter ones?
The most lasting impact of Mr. Cox’s book, says The Times, is a gentle reminder to pay attention to—and value—everyday sounds. For our prehistoric ancestors, a finely tuned sense of hearing was a key tool for survival. A sudden pause in birdsong could signal a threat. Now many of us live in cities and shut out the sound world altogether with earbuds and headphones. And yet, Mr. Cox argues, sounds powerfully enrich our sense of time and place, whether they are the chimes of Big Ben or the tinkling of an ice cream truck in summer.
So as you’re mapping out your family summer vacation, consider asking the kids, “What do you want to hear this year?”