(Bodley Head, £20)

Review: 'Sonic wonderland: A Scientific Odyssey of Sound' by Trevor Cox

An aural odyssey that takes us from the echoes of a London sewer to the world’s quietest place – and beyond

Conveying the sound of chirping crickets in Westerns as cowboys gather round the camp fire seems like a simple task: record a few of them and put the result on the soundtrack. But don’t say that to a Hollywood sound designer, who is likely to have expended much time and energy on finding the right recording: a calm scene requires a soothing sound, but if things are tense and edgy he or she will find something with a stop-start rhythm to suit.

We live in a world of visual primacy, but there is also a hidden world of sound – hidden in plain sight, one might say. “Hidden” because unless our attention is aroused we merely hear sound rather than actively  listen to it. When we do the latter  a whole new world emerges.

Trevor Cox is a professor of acoustic engineering with extensive experience in the art and science of squeezing the right kind of sound out of theatres and recording studios. The key is controlling reverberation, and this fascinating book began life with an epiphany amid the extraordinary echoes in  a London sewer, which sent him  on an aural odyssey of some of the world’s most remarkable sound- producing spaces.

There’s an entire book to be written about reverb alone: Cox quotes Hope Bagenal, acoustic consultant at the Royal Festival Hall, who considers that the insertion of galleries in Lutheran churches, which reduced reverb, was “the most important single fact in the history of music because it leads  directly to the St Matthew Passion and the B Minor Mass”. And it’s surely  no coincidence that stone age cave paintings are always to be found in the echoiest spots.

Cox explores a dazzling variety of fascinating sounds (and silence) around the globe, from the spherical Boston Mapparium, where the voice of one’s companion gets louder as he or she walks away, via whispering galleries like the one in St Paul’s Cathedral, and the road in California that plays the William Tell Overture as you drive along, to the quietest places in the world (including what is officially the most tranquil place in Britain, a secret location in Northumberland National Park).

He listens to instruments made out of ice and stone, as well as a stalactite organ near Luray, Virginia; mercifully, a 17th-century “piano” that involved driving nails into cats’ tails almost certainly didn’t go beyond the planning stage. Buildings make sounds too, Cox discovers: the Beetham Tower in Manchester has a sculpture on top which makes a loud hum in the wind – so loud, in fact, that it has disrupted the filming of Coronation Street, whose old set was a quarter of a mile away.

Cox stresses the importance of sonic design, both in history and in modern life: his biggest contemporary bugbear is open-plan schools, where noise careers about with nothing to impede it. There are many ways to reduce unwanted sound,  like the fountain in front of Sheffield railway station designed to act as a noise barrier, while in future, sonic crystals may be used to block out  certain frequencies.

There are ways to retrain our senses. We can join guided soundwalks in various cities – it was on one of these that Cox had his aural epiphany – and the “ear-cleaning” exercises advocated by Murray Schafer, the godfather of acoustic ecology, which involve a change in the way our brains process sound. One technique Schafer advocated is forgoing speech for a day while eavesdropping on the sounds made by others – “a challenging and even frightening exercise”. This might seem to be taking one’s sound-quest too far, but one thing’s for certain: when we actively listen rather than merely hear, the world becomes a richer and fuller place, and Cox’s book is the perfect primer for retraining your ears.

Order at the discounted price of£16 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing