Gloucester cathedral whispering gallery

The whispering gallery (or tunnel) runs behind the magnificant Great East Window

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Doubt not but God who sits on high,

Thy secret prayers can hear;

When a dead wall thus cunningly

Conveys soft whispers to the ear.

Plaque in the gallery

Classic whispering galleries usually have obvious curved surfaces to allow sound to travel long distances without getting too quiet. This isn’t what is happening here. As the video shows you have a tunnel within which the sound can’t escape, and so travels easily from one side of the cathedral to the other.

Great demo of the whispering gallery

The first documentation of this comes a meeting of the Royal Society in 1662. Such scientific luminaries as Robert Boyle (a founder of modern chemistry) had been discussing echoes and sounds and sought further information about the whispering gallery from politician Henry Powle.

Logistics

See Gloucester Cathedral website. While you’re there, you can also enjoy the reverberation in this huge cathedral (reverberation time about 8 seconds apparently).

Photo Credits

© Julian P Guffogg (Creative Commons Licence)

High tide organ

A ‘musical manifestation of the sea’ is created by this sound sculpture.

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Built in 2002 and designed by Liam Curtin and John Gooding, this organ stands next to Blackpool’s promenade. A narrow tall rusting sculpture shaped like a fern in spring beginning to unfurl, forms the most visible section of the wave organ. The sculpture uses church organ pipes that are sounded by air being forced through them by the ebb and flow of the sea waves. The music made depends on the vigour of the sea, sometimes it intermittently moans and groans, at other times it resembles a lazy orchestra of train whistles, or a slow-action replay of a nightmare recorder lesson.

Location

South Promenade, Blackpool FY4 1BB. Sounds best 2-3 hours before or after high tide. If the sea is calm, you won’t hear anything!

Musical Stones of Skiddaw

Try your hand at rock music on this Victorian instrument played by the “Original Monstre Stone Band.”

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Queen Victoria heard command performances of Handel, Mozart and Rossini on this large stone xylophone. It took Joseph Richardson thirteen years to construct this lithophone out of hornfels slate from the Lake District. The vast instrument is in the Keswick Museum and Art Gallery in Cumbria, where I was amazed to be encouraged to have a go. The tone varies across the instrument. Some stones ring beautifully, like a wooden xylophone, while others make more of a thunk, like a beer bottle being struck with a stick.

Original advert from the London Gazette in 1845

One historical account recalls, ‘The tones produced are equal in quality, and sometimes superior in mellowness and fulness, to those of a fine piano-forte, under the hand of a skilful player.’

Location

Keswick Museum, England

Beetham Tower

In high winds this tower hums like an alien space ship coming into land.

The hum, recorded through my car’s sun roof on a very windy night.

In very high winds, the Beetham Tower in the centre of Manchester emits this very loud hum. The problem is caused by the glass and metal sculpture right at the top of the building. When the wind rushes past the edge of the glass panes turbulence is created. This is then amplified via resonance. (I think of the air between the deep glass panes).

“Quick sound level measurement at Beetham Tower – 78 dB Laeq,1s main freq in 250Hz 3rd/oct band”

Acoustic consultant Simon Jackson (@stjackson)

No wonder people complain about it keeping them awake, that is like having someone playing a tenor saxophone at a moderate volume level.

Location

303 Deansgate, Manchester M3 4LQ. You’ll only hear it when the wind is from the west and gusts over 70 mph.

Credits:

Photo: Mikey

Thurgoland railway tunnel

This railway tunnel creates an extraordinary metallic flutter.

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This old railway tunnel near Sheffield creates an extraordinary metallic flutter when you shout or clap your hands. I was alerted to this strange acoustic when I was interviewed for the Channel 5 programme Walking Britain’s Lost Railways. While many tunnels have lots of reverb, it’s unusual to have such a warbling effect.

Listen to the warble in the Thurgoland Tunnel

The warble is a type of flutter echo, caused by repetitive reflection paths. The animation shows sound being modelled as a simple bouncing ball. At each wall the ball follows the law of reflection (angle of incidence = angle of reflection). The source is the black circle and the red circle is where the listener is. You can see that the sound keeps returning to the receiver, but it takes a few reflections before it returns. There is a pattern of regular reflection arrivals, but the bowed shape of the tunnel creates paths that traverse the width more than once before returning to the receiver. There’s a slightly longer explanation on my acoustical engineering blog.

A simple ray tracing in the Thurgoland Tunnel

Logistics

If you want to experience it yourself, it’s open as part of the National Cycle Network. The tunnel is here.

Credits

Photo Dave Pickersgill under this Creative Commons Licence.

Anechoic Chambers

A claustraphobic silence that some find unpleasant and others love.

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The anechoic chamber at the University of Salford, UK
The anechoic chamber at the University of Salford, UK

When someone talks in a full anechoic chamber, their voice sounds muffled, like your ears need to pop while in an aircraft. Some visitors find the disjoint between the visual and aural unsettling. This is a room where you can see but not hear walls. One scientific study showed that if you turn the lights out, after a while some visitors will start to have hallucinations in the chamber.

Anechoic chambers are incredibly quiet and the walls of the room don’t reflect sound. This enables acousticians to test products and sound phenomena without interference from outside noises or reflections from the walls. A well designed anechoic chamber is so quiet that no sound enters your ear canals, the only sounds you hear are generated by your own body. You might hear blood moving through your head and/or a high pitched hissing originating in the auditory nerve. But the extraordinary quiet isn’t the main reason why some visitors ask to leave the chamber. The walls, floor and ceiling are covered in absorbent wedges that mean no sound reflects back to you when you talk and this sounds impressive.

This video is the best illustration I know for how quiet the space is:

And this sound of a balloon burst is a great illustration of how the anechoic chamber stops reflections, turning the normal bang into a brief click:

Location and logistics

There are many anechoic chambers in the world, but you need to find a high quality one with an absorbing floor and very low background noise level to get the full aural experience. At Salford University, our anechoic chamber opens up during open days for public tours.

Hamilton Mausoleum

This mausoleum once held the World record for the room with the ‘longest echo’

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During the World record attempt, it took 15s for the booming reverberation caused by slamming one of the grand doors shut, to die to silence. When I visited the first floor chapel it was certainly very reverberant. It’s like being in a large church or cathedral, impressive but there are more reverberant spaces in the World. The reverberation time at frequencies imporant for speech has been measured at about 9 seconds. A guided tour around the chapel is worth taking because you can then enjoy some of the tales about the colourful Duke and his descendents. The very reverberant space attracts musicians from around the world to perform and record.

Cupola and test loudspeaker
Looking up at cupola with test loudspeaker in foreground

A less well known acoustic phenomenon in the chapel is the whispering walls in the cylindrical alcoves. If you and a friend stand at opposite sides, you can whisper to each other by talking into the wall.

Location

Close to Glasgow, book a tour organised by Low Parks Museum and Hamilton Mausoleum.

Singing Ringing Tree

High on the Pennine Moorsthis sculpture uses wind to generate discordant and haunting sounds.

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This piece of public art is high above Burnley on the Pennine moors. It uses the prevailing westerly winds to generate discordant and haunting sounds to accompany the view from Crown Point. It was designed by architects Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu in 2006 and won a Royal Institute of British Architects award. Not all the pipes create sound – some are just there to create the dramatic shape. The pipes that ‘sing’ create an unearthly choral sound, which is only audible at relatively close range on a windy day.

Location

Local tourist information

Credits

Squeakings Sands

A beautiful beach, the wind in the hair, the waves lapping on the shore, the soothing sound of squeaking underfoot!

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The beach at Porthor is known as the Whistling Sands, which in many ways is an odd name because squeaking sands would be more appropriate. As you walk along the beach the sand squeaks underfoot. I experienced a similar phenomena on Whitehaven Beach, Whitsundays, Australia beach and it’s distinctly odd.

One suggestion is that the sound is caused by friction as the grains rub against each other, but this isn’t proven. What is known is that you need the right sort of sand grains: ones that are near spherical with no sharp edges. This is probably why the effect is only heard on some beaches. The squeaking is most audible when the sand has been recently washed, and so it’s rarely heard far from the shoreline. On the beech, the sand needs to be dry (although submerged sand can also sometimes squeak) [2] so check the weather before travelling!

Logistics and some suggested locations

Whistling Sands – Porth Oer, Wales

Owned by the National Trust

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsundays, Australia

Can be reached via ferries and other boats.

Other reported sites

Australia

  1. Pilots beach in Laurieton, NSW
  2. Thistle Cove, Cape Le Grand National Park
  3. Neck Beach, Bruny Island, Tasmania
  4. Moreton Island, Australia
  5. Surfer’s Paradise, Australia
  6. Bondi beach, Australia
  7. Squeaky Beach, 5607, Australia
  8. Wilson’s Prom., Victoria, Australia

USA

  1. Cocoa beach, Florida
  2. Treasure island, Florida
  3. Henderson Beach Destin, Florida
  4. Tybee Island, GA, USA

Cources

  1. Sound Benboncan (c) some rights reserved
  2. Sholtz, P., Bretz, M., and Nori, F. (1997). “Sound-producing sand avalanches,” Contemporary Physics 38, 329-342.
  3. Eifion (c) some rights reserved
  4. map thumbnail.Storm (c) some rights reserved

Quarry Bank Mill

Just one cotton machine running is loud, just imagine what it was like with all of them going.

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The North-West of England was at the heart of British Cotton Manufacturing. The noise within the mills was horrendous, indeed pioneering research into noise induced deafness examined weavers because the sound was unrelentingly loud. Nowadays, only a small number of machines are used at this museum, even so the sound is deafening:

“Stand among the looms today, feel the heat brush your face and the floorboards shake, and listen to the roar of the flyer frames. There stretch the beams of yarn and the 500 bobbins set out in the creel, each holding up to 12 miles of cotton. A cool, damp stairway leads down to the wheel itself; a giant, a monster, grown mossy and rusted, its colossal spokes still turning, heaving the river. You can get lost in the vastness of it, in the motion of it, in the grumble and groan of its working, feel yourself floored by this rush of the past.” [1]

Location

Quarry Bank Mill and Styal Estate, nr Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 4LA, see website for opening hours and times when machinery is running. Cotton looms can also be heard at the Museum of Science and Industry in nearby Manchester.

Sources and credits

  1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2009/nov/27/manchester?page=all
  2. SpindlierHades (c) some rights reserved
  3. Sound Matthias Kispert (c) some rights reserved