Speech spun around the inside of the curved sewer like a motorcyclist performing in a wall of death. I have worked in architectural acoustics for 25 years, yet this ordinary sewer contained a reverberant sound effect I had not heard before.
As I slogged around, I realized that distortions can sometimes be wonderful. Despite having studied sound intensely for decades, I had been missing something. I had been so busy trying to remove unwanted noise that I had forgotten to listen to the sounds themselves.
By the time I emerged through a manhole onto a leafy suburban street, I’d decided I wanted to find more unusual acoustic effects. And not just the ugly ones. I wanted to experience the most surprising, unexpected, and sublime sounds—the sonic wonders of the world.
My search morphed into a full-blown quest, taking me all over the globe. I also set up an interactive website, sonicwonders.org, to invite suggestions and catalog my discoveries. Here are seven of my favorites.
Mojave Desert: Singing Sand Dunes
Find the right slope, and as you climb up Kelso Dunes, the sand will honk like a badly played tuba. Scoot down on your backside to create a mini “avalanche,” and the whole surface will vibrate, sounding like an aircraft taxiing down the runway. This rare phenomenon is caused by the shape, size, and coating of the sand grains.
Mexico: Mayan Pyramid That Chirps
If you clap your hands in front of the Temple of Kukulkan in Chichén Itzá, you’ll hear a chirping echo like a birdcall. This effect is caused by sound bouncing off the pyramid’s stair treads. Kukulkan was built around the 11th century, and acoustician David Lubman has suggested that the echo was used by Mayans during ceremonies to mimic the sacred and venerated quetzal bird.
Serengeti: Gong Rock
What did the world sound like to our prehistoric ancestors? Sound is ephemeral, but musical artifacts provide some clues. The Gong Rock rings with a harsh metallic clang when struck with another stone. Hammered indents on this and other large boulders show us that they were struck and played in the past. Although getting exact dates for these marks is difficult, some are assumed to date back to antiquity.
New York City: Whispering Walls In Grand Central Terminal
If you whisper into one side of the tiled arch outside the entrance to the terminal’s famous Oyster Bar & Restaurant, your words will seamlessly follow the curve of the ceiling and come back down to be heard on the other side. For the best effect, the whisperer and listener need to get close to the stone, like naughty children standing in opposite corners of a classroom. The arch is a popular place for marriage proposals.
California: Civic Musical Road
In the city of Lancaster, a road plays the “March of the Swiss Soldiers” from Rossini’s William Tell Overture. No electronics are involved: The music is made by the vibrations of car wheels. How? The road is a bit like a rumble strip (those ridges at the edge of a highway that make a sound alerting drivers to danger). The musical road takes the rumble strip one step further by spacing the corrugations in a pattern that creates the tune.
Korea: The Divine Bell
When large bells ring, their shape often creates a distinct warble. Most Western foundries want to avoid this kind of tremor, but in Korea, it’s believed to be an important part of the sound quality. The Divine Bell of King Seongdeok, cast in AD 771, is now housed in the Gyeongju National Museum. It peals like a crying child; the reason, according to legend, is that the bell’s maker had to sacrifice his daughter in order to get it to ring.
Scotland: The World’s Longest Echo
The Inchindown oil storage tanks were dug into a hillside north of Invergordon in Ross-shire, Scotland, amid concerns that German bombing during WWII would interrupt the supply of shipping fuel to the Royal Navy. Each concrete tank is twice the length of a soccer field, with a high arched roof. If you were to play a single note on a baritone saxophone in one of these tanks, the sound would reverberate for nearly two minutes after you stopped playing.