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.

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