Destination/Hotel News & Reviews

Sound Tourism: Listen to the World

Sound Tourism: Listen to the World

Travel with Your Ears Wide Open

A blind friend who loves to travel as much as I do keeps his memories in audio form. Since photography is of no interest to him his travel memories are in albums that are feasts for the ears.  As a sighted person I find his collection fascinating. From pub life in various countries to the sound of church bells to the sounds of children chanting jump rope rhymes, his audio collection evokes a sense of place as much as any of my photos do.

Thus I was delighted to discover the website, “Sound Tourism.” It is the creation of Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustic Engineering at the University of Salford where he carries out research and teaching focusing on architectural acoustics, signal processing and audio perception. Reading a listing of his qualifications and achievements – he has spent most of his career perfecting indoor environments to optimize their acoustic properties–might make you think you’ve discovered a cure for insomnia. The theories behind the engineering he does is the stuff of technical journals. But,  Cox has also learned about a world of  intriguing sounds and has become an advocate for the lost art of listening. He encourages  all of us to listen to and explore the sounds around us.  When he is talking sound tourism he will fascinate and engage you.

Take, for example, the Tikal pyramids in Guatemala.  The Mayans practiced human sacrifice at this site. and it was public theater on a massive scale. The victims were part of an intricately choreographed ritual where the beating heart was surgically removed and held up for the crowd to see.


tikel pyramid

Tikal, Guatamala

“If you stand at the bottom of the pyramid’s steps and clap your hands you get this incredible chirping sound, ” says Cox. “Echoes off buildings are common, but not ones that distort sound. Whether the pyramid was constructed to deliberately make this noise, or it happened by chance, is still a matter of debate among scientists and archaeologists. Reflections from the treads of the staircase are responsible for the echo; the sound is like a bird chirping because the step height gradually changes: causing the frequency of the echo to rapidly drop.”

The Maya worshipped a vast collection of deities involved in all aspects of everyday life. Several of these deities appeared in bird form. Did the ancient Mayan’s deliberately design this acoustic “chirping” effect into the building?

Noisy Sand Dunes

Singing, Whispering or Booming Sand Dunes are found in many parts of the world. They are a natural sound phenomenon of up to 105 decibels, lasting as long as several minutes, that occurs in about 35 desert locations around the world. The sound is similar to a loud, low-pitch, rumble, and it emanates from the crescent-shaped dunes.  The sound emission accompanies a slumping or avalanche movement of the sand, usually triggered by wind passing over the dune or by someone walking near the crest.

kelso dunes

Kelso Dunes, Mojave Desert, California

Examples of singing sand dunes include California’s Kelso Dunes and Eureka Dunes; sugar sand beaches and Warren Dunes in southwestern Michigan; Sand Mountain in Nevada; the Booming Dunes in the Namib Desert, Africa; Porth Oer (also known as Whistling Sands) near Aberdaron in Wales; Indiana Dunes in Indiana; Barking Sands in Hawaiʻi; Mingsha Shan in Dunhuang, China; Singing Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts; near the Al Udeid Air Base west of Doha, in Qatar; and Gebel Naqous, near el-Tor, South Sinai, Egypt.

An Invitation to Become a “Sound Explorer”

For an extra treat, watch Trevor Cox’s presentation  Becoming A Sound Explorer  He invites you to “unplug” (take off your headphones, turn off your portable devices) and listen to the world around you. He starts by telling of the icebergs on the Black-sand beach in Iceland. He quotes a DK Eyewitness Travel Guidebook:

“…icebergs wash downstream to the sea. There they get stranded on the Black-sand beach making for evocative photographs.”

Cox points out that guide books focus on “sights” and ignore sounds. Most tourists visitng the Black-sand beach arrive by car or coach and only stop long enough to take a few photos, or take a short boat trip through the icebergs. However, while cycling through Iceland he he found himself camping one evening at the  Black-sand beach where he made a discovery:

“When the noise from the boats and traffic had gone away we could hear this amazing sound. The lapping waves moves the ice, and you get the tinkling sound of ice as it is propelled along the beach.”

He goes on to invite all of us to make listening a regular pursuit in our travels.

Read the book

Trevor Cox’s  “The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World” (W. W. Norton & Company), has just been released (April 2014).  In it he describes many spectacular and memorable sound phenomena that belong on our “sound bucket lists.”
sound bookFor anyone who enjoys travel and exploring the world this book is a joy.  The author leads us into the “sonic wonderland” of our world. The book opens with Cox’s  graphic and entertaining tale  of his foray into the London sewers.  Climbing 20 feet below the streets of London he found odors that made his skin crawl.  His head butted stalactites composed of crusty fatty deposits which broke off  and worked their way down the back of his shirt.  At the same time, he discovered amazing acoustic effects created by the sewer geography. “Speech spun around the inside of the curved  walls of the sewer like “motorcyclists performing in the wall of death.” This was an epiphany for Cox, and one that started him on his journey of “sound tourism.”To be a sound tourist you won’t have to get up close and personal to stinky sewer detritus (unless you want to, that is). Cox reports on sounds all over the world that are much more esthetically located. As Cox relates the wonders of the sound world you will be caught up by his enthusiasm. You will want to make plans to start your own sound tour. As you collect your own album of sound memories, you can share the best of your finds at the Sound Tourism site  Take a look, give a listen and Bon voyage!


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