Author Interviews
3:13 pm
Mon February 10, 2014

Sounds Intriguing: The World's Most Interesting Noises

Originally published on Tue February 11, 2014 1:55 pm

Trevor Cox has heard it all. He's a professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford in England, and he delights in discovering unusual noises. He's also author of The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World, which describes some of what he's found.

In the book, Cox explores naturally occurring and man-made environments that have surprising acoustical characteristics. He's gone to creaking glaciers, humming dunes and a Mayan pyramid that chirps like a bird. He's also done a fair bit of noisemaking himself, testing acoustics in interesting places. "I do seem to spend a lot of time bursting balloons," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

Cox and Siegel listen to some of those balloons popping, talk about echoes and anechoic chambers and take an aural ride along one of Cox's favorite sonic mishaps.


Interview Highlights

On whisper galleries, many of which are architectural accidents

In Britain, probably the most famous whispering gallery is in St. Paul's Cathedral. And you can go up into the base of the dome and you whisper into one side of the dome and the sound skims around the inside, and your friend can hear it on the other side you know, 30, 35 feet away, and it sounds like this whisper's emerging from the wall remarkably loud. ...

It's just pure accident. You can get it out of lots of curved surfaces. There's a dam in Australia which acts like a whispering wall. Well, they didn't build a dam in Australia to give you this acoustic effect, but it's a tourist attraction. They obviously built it to hold back water.

On how one church supposedly used a whisper gallery for a religious purpose

I'm not sure how true [this story] is, but it certainly is told lots. As you go and visit Clonmacnoise in Ireland there, you'll certainly get told the story. It's a sort of ornate, sort of Gothic archway, with a nice round sort of pipework coming around the top of the arch. And the idea is that the priest would stand in one side of the doorway, and the leper would stand in the other, and they'd whisper into this tunnel effectively, and that would mean the priest wouldn't have to get too near to the leper when taking confession.

On the longest reverberation in the world

Guinness has acknowledged it. It's the most — well, they call it the longest echo. It was a bit of an argument about terminology, because it's actually reverberation, but it's Guinness' record; they can call it what they like, I guess.

I was told about this place — it was an old oil storage depot. This is up in Scotland and it supplied the navy with shipping oil. It's about the size of a small cathedral on the inside, but [there are] really smooth walls. So we went to measure it. We fired a starting pistol, which is the normal measurement, the way of doing it, and the sound recordings last about 60, 70 seconds. ...

It's quite amazing. I stood there ... watching the time on the digital recorder ticking up, and I just could not believe how long it was.

On the sound of a balloon popping inside an anechoic chamber

When you're doing acoustic engineering, at some point you've got to measure, say, a loudspeaker or a microphone — you don't want the effect of rooms or whatever noise. So you go into an isolated room where there's no effect, acoustically, of a room. And that's what an anechoic chamber provides. So big acoustic labs have them.

I think it's sort of underwhelmingly magnificent, really, because you expect to hear a bang like you would at a kid's party when the balloon bursts, and it goes "phut." It doesn't really do very much.

On his favorite noise out of the ones he researched

I guess the one that gave me the biggest smile was probably the musical road in California which plays the William Tell overture rather badly as you drive over it. That gave me quite a laugh. ... When you drive down the highway often there's rumble strips down the side which stop you driving off; you know, if you were to veer off the highway you'd make a buzzing sound. Well, a musical road takes that a step further by changing the spacing of the corrugations so that you get a tune out of it. So sometimes the corrugations are close together: You get a high frequency. Sometimes they're far apart: You get a low frequency. And the musical road in Lancaster, in California, is all these ridges ... spaced out on the second lane. And it actually will play the entire first phrase from the theme from Lone Ranger.

They got the spacing of the rumble strip wrong. It would be amusing if it wasn't tragic. The last note should go up to an octave above the first note, but it doesn't. For those that are musical, it goes up about a fifth ... it could sound a lot better.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Trevor Cox delights in sounds that he has discovered. He's a professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford in England. And now, he's written a book based on what he has found. The book is called "The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World." He's gone to creaking glaciers, humming dunes, and a Mayan pyramid that chirps like a bird. In his book, Cox explores natural environments with surprising acoustical characteristics and also man-made environments. For example, accidental whispering galleries.

TREVOR COX: In Britain, probably the most famous whispering gallery is in St. Paul's Cathedral. And you can go up into the base of the dome and you whisper into one side of the dome and the sound skims around the inside. And your friend can hear it on the other side, you know, 30, 35 meters away, and it sounds like this whisper's emerging from the wall remarkably loud.

SIEGEL: But it wasn't built that way. No one said, let's have a whisper gallery.

COX: No. It's just pure accident. You can get it out of lots of curved surfaces. There's a dam in Australia which acts like a whispering wall. Well, they didn't build a dam in Australia to give you this acoustic effect but it's a tourist attraction. They obviously built it to hold back water.

SIEGEL: You provided us with the sound of - actually, it's a balloon bursting in the whispering gallery. I gather balloons bursting are - it's a stock in trade for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLOON BURSTING)

COX: I do seem to be spending a lot of time bursting balloons. This is not the one in St. Paul's Cathedral because, funny enough, the attendants wouldn't let me burst a balloon. But this is actually up in a radar dome in Germany called war listening station, which has this perfectly spherical dome at the top, which has this most amazing effect because the normal whispering gallery, you whisper and the sound just goes around the dome once. When you make a big sound, it goes around many times. You can hear it during many circuits of the whispering gallery.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLOON BURSTING)

SIEGEL: You do write about one example where people made interesting use of the acoustic accident of architecture. There's a church where the whisper function was used for priests taking the confession of lepers.

COX: I'm not sure how true it is but it certainly is told lots. You go and visit Clonmacnoise in Ireland there, you'll certainly get told the story. It's a sort of ornate, sort of Gothic archway, with a nice round sort of pipe work, you know, coming around the top of the arch. And the idea is the priest would stand in one side of the doorway, and the leper would stand in the other. And they'd whisper into this tunnel effectively, and the sound would whiz around. And that would mean the priest wouldn't have to get too near the leper when taking confession.

SIEGEL: It's such a good story, I'm inclined to have you tell it on the air even if it isn't true, it's so good.

COX: I just thought, being a scientist, I ought to just put the skeptical point.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: That's very good. One of the sonic wonders of the world that you sought out for this book was the place with the - I guess it's the longest reverberation in the world. And I want you to tell us about what you think at least would qualify as the most reverberating site on Earth.

COX: Yeah. I mean, Guinness has acknowledged it. It's the most - well, they call it the longest echo. It was a bit of an argument about terminology because it's actually reverberation. But it's Guinness' record. They can call it what they like, I guess.

I was told about this place. It was an old oil storage depot. This is up in Scotland and it was - it supplied the navy with shipping oil. They're the size of a small cathedral on the inside, but there are really smooth walls. So we went to measure it. We fired a starting pistol, which is a normal measurement way of doing it, and the sound - the recordings last about 60, 70 seconds.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

SIEGEL: I don't think we have enough time to wait for this sound to stop reverberating.

COX: Yeah. I mean, it's quite amazing. I stood there because I was watching the time on the digital recorder ticking up and I just could not believe how long it was.

SIEGEL: At the opposite extreme of the sounds that you sample for the book is being inside an anechoic chamber. Unlike the other places that you report on, it's actually built not to have an echo.

COX: You know, when you're doing acoustic engineering, at some point you've got to measure, let's say, a loudspeaker or a microphone, you don't want the effect of rooms or whatever noise. So you go into an isolated room where there's no effect, acoustically, of a room. And that's what an anechoic chamber provides. So big acoustic labs have them.

SIEGEL: Well, we heard the sound of a balloon bursting inside that amazingly reverberant tank in Inchindown.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLOON BURSTING)

SIEGEL: Here's the sound you recorded of a balloon bursting inside the anechoic chamber. Boy, was that a letdown.

COX: But actually it kind of isn't. I think it's sort of underwhelmingly magnificent, really, because you expect to hear a bang like you would at a kid's party when the balloon bursts, and it goes phut(ph). It doesn't really do very much.

SIEGEL: Do you have a favorite noise of all the ones that you recorded for "The Sound Book"?

COX: I guess the one which gave me the biggest smile was probably the musical road in California, which plays the "William Tell Overture" rather badly as you drive over it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COX: That gave me quite a laugh.

SIEGEL: You have to explain how that is that you hear the "William Tell Overture."

COX: Well, when you drive down the highway, often there's rumble strips down the side which stop you driving, you know, if you were to veer off the highway, you'd make a buzzing sound. Well, a musical road takes that a step further by changing the spacing of the corrugations so that you get a tune out of it.

So sometimes the corrugations are close together. You get a high frequency. Sometimes they're far apart. You get a low frequency. And the musical road in Lancaster, in California is - all these ridges or actually grooves are spaced out on the second lane, and it actually will play the entire first phrase from the theme from "The Lone Ranger."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COX: They got the spacing of the rumble strip wrong. It's got, you know, it would be amusing if it wasn't tragic. And so it should be - the last note should go up to an octave above the first note, but it doesn't. It goes up - for those that are musical, it goes up about a fifth. So it could sound a lot better.

SIEGEL: Trevor Cox, thank you very much for talking with us today.

COX: It was a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Trevor Cox's book is called "The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLIAM TELL OVERTURE")

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: