St. Louis Union Station Whispering Arch

This sound effect was discovered when “a workman dropped a hammer on one side of the arch and a painter on the other side, nearly 40 feet away heard him.”

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The whispering arch is a treat, talk towards the wall and someone 20 yards away can plainly hear you. pretty cool.

Aquariuz, Trip Advisor

The whispering arch is the structure to the left in the old postcard, there’s a plaque marking the spot. This whispering arch dates back to when the building was a large railway station in the nineteenth century. When someone talks into the wall, you can get sound that stays close to the edge of the arched ceiling. A classic way of illustrating this is to consider sound as a snooker ball bouncing around the edge of a circular table.

Sound in a whispering arch modelled as a bouncing ball

Location

In the lobby of the St. Louis Union Station Hotel. Head for the stained Tiffany glass window featuring three robed women figures.

Credits:

Photos: Public Domain and onasill

Mapparium

A spherical room that allows you to whisper sweet nothings in your ear!

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The Mapparium is a giant hollow globe of the world, with the seas and continents vividly drawn on stained glass. It was built in 1935 following a suggestion by architect Chester Lindsay Churchill. It took eight
months to paint and bake all 608 glass panels, which are mounted on a spherical bronze frame.

You traverse a walkway cutting through the center of the Earth linking up two opposite points on the equator. Three hundred lightbulbs illuminate the globe from the outside. Looking at the world from the inside out is an odd experience, but what also strikes visitors are the strange acoustics, which were an accidental by-product of the geometry.

One of the effects you’ll hear is false localisation:

“Suppose you are on the Mapparium bridge facing South America. There is a source of noise to your right, but you discover that you hear the noise coming from your left!”

William Hartmann, Michigan State University

This happens because the reflections from the globe are focussed and very loud. Your brain thinks the sound is coming from the reflection direction and not direct from the source. This focussing also allows you to do things like whisper in your own ear!

As you approach the exact center of the Mapparium sphere you suddenly become aware of strong reflections of your own voice . . . If you sway to the left, you hear yourself in your right ear. If you sway to the right, you hear yourself in your left ear.

William Hartmann, Michigan State University

Location

Marky Baker Eddy Library in Washington. They have regular tours. At the end of my tour, they allowed us to linger a little to play with the acoustics.

Credits

Photo: Smart Destinations

Echo Bridge

Bridge arches can have great echoes, this one is meant to repeat a human voice up to 15 times

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Built in the 1870s, this large arched bridge spans the Charles River. There are steps down to a specially built listening platform so you can hear the sound effect. In September 1948, Arthur Taber Jones wrote to the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, detailing a small study. ‘A handlcapp [sic] is returned in a series of about a dozen echoes of decreasing loudness, and at a rate of about four echoes per second.’ [1]

By Daderot – Own work, CC0

The question Jones posed in his article was whether the sound was skimming around the inside of the curved arch, like a whispering gallery or propagating horizontally just above the water. The video below, created with a modern acoustic prediction model shows how sound moves under the bridge. No wonder Jones struggled to work out what was going on, because it seems that the sound both skims around the arch and bounces back and forth horizontally just above the water.

While Echo Bridge is unique in having been a subject of scientific study, I’ve found that other arched railway and canal bridges have the same sound effect once you know the general shape to look out for.

Location

A Walking Tour of Hemlock Gorge (including a visit to the echo platform). The bridge spans the Charles River between Needham and Newton.

Sources

Thanks to Jonathan Sheaffer for modelling the sound propagation.
[1] A. T. Jones, “The echoes at Echo Bridge,” J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 20, 706-707 (1948).

Stonehenge Replica

Experience a impression of the ancient acoustics of Stonehenge.

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What was the acoustic like within Stonehenge thousands of years ago? It’s difficult to get an impression at the real Stonehenge because too many stones are missing or displaced. However, a trip to this complete replica in the USA gives an impression of the old site. The replica was built as a monument to those who died in World War 1. Although made from concrete rather than stone, the acoustic within the circle is similar to the original.

Rupert Till explores how a drum beat is changed by the stonecircle.

The effect of the stones can be heard by comparing these two recordings. The first is a recording of clapping away from the standing stones out in the open and the second a recording of clapping within the stone circle. The sound can be heard to ring and reverberate within the stone circle – it is surprising how long each clap rings for, considering there is no ceiling on the stone circle to stop the sound disappearing into the sky.

Clapping away from the standing stones out in the open
Clapping within the stone circle

Location

The Maryhill Stonehenge is part of the Maryhill Museum of Art three miles east of the museum just off Highway 14.

Credits

Sounds from Bruno Fazenda University of Salford and Rupert Till University of Huddersfield

Great Stalacpipe Organ, USA

Ringing stalactites create strange ethereal sounds from this huge musical instrument.

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This is a bizarre musical instrument. It was dreamt up and painstakingly constructed by Leland Sprinkle, a mathematician and electronic engineer in the 1950s. Rocks that ring have been used as musical instruments for thousands of years. But this is the only lithophone I know of based on stalactites.

It’s claimed to be the largest natural musical instrument in the world, generating a beautiful, ghostly and disorientating sound. The cave acoustics make it difficult to locate where the sounds are coming from. 37 stalactites produce the different notes of a musical scale. But the tuning isn’t entirely natural, as some sanding of the natural formations was needed to get the notes exactly in tune. Small rubber hammers strike the stalactites; these are electronically controlled by an organ keyboard.

Locations and logistics

Luray Cavern’s website with opening hours etc.

Credits and sources

  1. Sound released by Luray Caverns into public domain
  2. Photo: KristopherM (c) some rights reserved
  3. Photo:lossanjose (c) some rights reserved

Singing roads

A road which plays tunes using rumble strips.

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Want to listen to a poor quality, out-of-tune rendition of a famous melody when driving your car? No need for an expensive car stereo, a singing road can do this using wheel vibrations.

If you drift off the side of a road and hit a rumble strip, you’ll get a distinctive sound intended to alert you and prevent an accident. The pitch of the sound you get depends on the spacing between the bumps or ridges. So if you make lots of ridges like a rumble strip and vary the spacing between the ridges correctly, then different musical notes can be made. Close together ridges (say 6mm apart) give high notes, and far apart ridges (say 12mm apart) give low notes. Make the right pattern of ridges then as a car drives over them, a tune is played. Mind you, in most cases the sound quality is pretty poor, and if the car is at the wrong speed it sounds even worse. Rather amusingly, when Honda tried to create such a road for an advert, they got the spacing wrong and so their version of the William Tell Over­ture was very out of tune. Here is my acoustic analysis of the road.

Videos of musical roads in USA, South Korea, Japan and Denmark

Location

In City of Lancaster, USA, the road is found along the westbound stretch of Avenue G between 30th and 40th Streets West. It was moved from its original site following concerns about noise disturbing nearby houses.

Alternatively, the Japanese have the most melody roads: twelve listed here. Suggested optimum driving speed is 28mph (45km/h). Those shown on the map are:

  • Hokkaido: drive west
  • Route 370, Wakayama prefecture, plays Miagetegoran Yorunohoshiwo
  • Numata-shi, Gunma prefecture, plays “Natsuno Omoide (Summer Memories)”

The road in Anyang, Gyeonggi, South Korea is meant to play Mary Had a Little Lamb when driving at 100 Km/h and was designed to help motorists stay alert. However, the videos I have heard all sound pretty terrible and the tune is unrecognizable.

Credits and sources

  1. Map photo: shidax (c) some rights reserved

Booming Sand Dunes

Singing sand dunes can create loud drones during avalanches.

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(Your tablet ot computer loudspeakers may fail to reproduce this low frequency sound).

Some sand dunes make a strange low frequency humming sound a bit like the drone of a distant propeller aircraft. The sound can be surprisingly loud: in some cases it can be heard many kilometres away. This is something that has been known about for centuries: Marco Polo, the Emporer Baber and Charles Darwin all wrote about it [1]. For instance, Marco Polo wrote about his encounter in the Gobi Desert “[the singing sands] at times fill the air with the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums and the clash of arms.”

The sound is rather unusual and eerie – reminiscent of a bass musical instrument. The drone is caused by a synchronised avalanche of the sand grains. The pitch of the note produced depends on the size of the grains – and so each singing sand dune has its own distinctive voice pitch. But the exact reason for the grain synchronisation is still being argued about among scientists.

Logistics

Consider safety as you’ll be visiting a desert in the height of summer. About thirty dunes around the World boom. The large dunes most reliably sing in the summer when the grains are dry. Small dunes tend not to sing. As the videos show, you can start the avalanche yourself: once the sound has started it can continue for sometime after you stop pushing the sand. Do this on the leeward face of the dune (the side sheltered from the wind). The dune needs to be steeper than about 30 degrees.

Below is a list of locations gleaned from the Internet – it would be wise to check with locals about the exact locations.

  • Atlantic Sahara desert around Laayoune, Ghord Lahmar dune near Foum Agoutir, Morocco [2]. (Also Erg Ezzahar or screaming dunes)
  • Kelso Dunes near California’s Mojave Desert, off the Kelbaker Rd, north of Highway 40 between Barstow and Needles, Ca, USA [3]
  • Kelso, Sand Mountain (20-21 miles east of Fallon, Nevada on Highway 50, USA [3]
  • Crescent Dunes (about 15 miles west of Tonopah, Nevada, USA [3]
  • Dumont Dunes (60 miles north of Kelso, Ca, USA [3]
  • Big Dune (Amaragosa Valley, south of Beatty, Nevada, USA [3]
  • Eureka Dunes (Hanging Rock Rd, out of Bishop, Ca, USA [3]
  • 40 km southwest of Doha, Qatar
  • La Mar de Dunas and El Cerro Bramador, Copiapo, Chile
  • The Dune of Altynemel (“The Singing Dune”) in the valley of Ili River near Kapchagay, Kazakhstan
  • Near Liwa, South of the United Arab Emirates. In area known as the Empty Quarter
  • Dunes of Badain Jarin, Inner Mongolia, China
  • Dune Ming Sha Shan, The Mount of Singing Sand, DunHuang, Gansu, China

Credits

  1. http://www.its.caltech.edu/~nmvriend/research/
  2. http://www.pmmh.espci.fr/fr/morphodynamique/SongOfDunes.html
  3. Wild soundscapes: discovering the voice of the natural world, Bernard L. Krause, Wilderness Press
  4. Sound (c) Nathalie Vriend

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

Whispering Arch, Grand Central Station

A whispering gallery found in a surprising place, Grand Central Terminal in New York.

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There’s an area under 4 archways, on the way down to the lower concourse, where you can experience an amazing sound effect. If you and a friend stand at opposite ends of the underpass and one of you speaks towards the wall at a normal volume, the other person can hear you perfectly even though you are a good 10 metres away and facing in the opposite direction. The stone walls and ceiling do a great job of reflecting the sound on a path across to the opposite side of the underpass. For more on the cause of this effect, see Whispering Gallery in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Logistics and location

In the lower concourse outside the Oyster bar. Whispering galleries need to be visited when it isn’t too busy otherwise the effect can’t be heard above other noise.

Sources

  • Site suggested by Charlie Mydlarz
  • Photo Nick Gray