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The Cartography of Sound

article-imageMeasuring the singing sands at Kelso Dunes in California (photograph by Trevor Cox)

Plenty of guidebooks have photographs of stunning views and extensive texts on the sites to see, but rare are the resources for sound tourists. Trevor Cox, a professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford in the UK, recently published a book on his expeditions to the sonic destinations of the globe.

article-image“I had this idea that it would be interesting to think about places to explore, to take your ears on holiday, to hunt for the most remarkable sounds in the world,” Cox told Atlas Obscura. The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World released earlier this year by W. W. Norton & Company, follows Cox from Great Britain to a road trip across the United States to obscure corners of the world as he experiences singing roadsbooming sand dunes, Mexico’s Mayan Kukulkan Pyramid with its odd chirping effect, and other reverberations, echoes, and sound curiosities both subdued and grand. 

You can hear some of these discoveries at his Sound Tourism: A Travel Guide to Sonic Wonders site set up prior to the book as a way to crowdsource and investigate the greatest sound wonders on Earth. We’re not quite to an Instagram for sounds where people would capture the clinking of brunch forks or wash of waves beneath a glorious sunset like we now do impulsively with images, but there is YouTube with its horde of vacation videos that Cox used as a resource. 

“Overall this was about awakening our listening and picking out things everyday in our travels to listen to,” he said. He also focused on sounds that were unexpected or unintended, steering away from instruments (although with exceptions for the unusual, such as the Great Stalacpipe Organ built from 37 stalactites) and spaces designed for acoustics like concert halls. However, he took his over two decades of experience in acoustic engineering as a starting point, for example the knowledge of the acoustics of a curved room to look for buildings with a similar shape that may have been built for something completely separate from sound. 

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Inside the Teufelsberg spying station (photograph by Trevor Cox)

This perspective took him to the abandoned Teufelsberg spying station in Berlin, which was once used to house listening equipment and now lures urban explorers to its empty radome with its impressive ricocheting acoustics. He also delved into the Victorian-era subterranean infrastructure under London, the tidal organ of Blackpool that uses the movement of the ocean to power an airy instrument, ancient sites like Stonehenge, a Scottish oil storage space with the world’s longest echo, and even visited scientists who carry ducks around to test the echoes of their quacks. Along the way in his book, he links in ideas from design, archaeology, biology, and neuroscience. From the incredibly elaborate call of the Superb Lyrebird in Australia to the connecting reverberations of the Bell Caves of Israel, the world is a sonically diverse and astounding place, but Cox is still appreciative of the noise of the everyday, even in urban spaces where the details can often get lost in the roar.   

“There are little bits of pleasure to be had even in a busy city,” he said. “It’s just in the modern world often if we’re waiting for something we’ll get our phones out, but it is quite nice to sit and listen for a bit. We’re in spring now and the birds are all alive and singing furiously, there are things to listen to if we just take the time to listen.”


The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World by Trevor Cox is available from W. W. Norton & Company. Visit Cox’s Sonic Wonders site to explore the sounds of the world.