(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

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
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.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific