Pisa Baptistry

The rich reverberant sound in the Baptistry of Pisa lasts an astonishingly long time, to the delight of all tourists, not just sound-ones.

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Under the dome of the Baptistry in Pisa a stunning acoustic effect can be heard. Notes sung here last so long, it’s actually possible to accompany yourself: new notes will harmonize with old ones still reverberating around. The Baptistry Guards will often demonstrate this beautiful effect.

The key to the remarkable acoustic is that there’s very little soft material about to absorb the sound. Consequently, notes rattles around the space for a long time, some suggest for over 12 seconds, before the sound dies away and becomes inaudible.

Logistics

To enjoy the wonderful acoustic arrive early before it gets too busy. Website with opening hours.

Credits

  1. Sound (c) jnbcarvalho
  2. Photo: gaspa (c) some rights reserved

Vienna Musikverein

Possibly the best and most famous concert hall for classical music.

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If you were to take a straw poll among acoustic engineers to find the best concert hall in World, then the Musikverein would come pretty close to the top: it might even top the list. It’s one of four concert halls around the World that are commonly cited as sound exemplars, with extraordinary acoustics against which all new designs are compared. Like all good concert halls, the Musikverein provide sound reflections that enrich the orchestral sound. Without these reflections, the music would sound rather thin and distant.

Scientists have spent many decades trying to unlock the secrets of the hall, and perhaps the most important feature is its diminutive floor size. People are packed together in a way which wouldn’t be allowed in a new building because of modern fire regulations. This results in a very lively sound; the music reverberates and echoes for a long time, bouncing around the hall, creating sound that seems to envelope the listener. It’s ideally suited to the music of Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler; these famous composers all had music premiered here.

360 video

Location and logistics

Website: Book a concert, or second best, go on a tour.

Credits

Photo: By Li Sun – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

El Castillo, Chichen Itza

The echo from the staircase disorts the sound, creating a chirp like a bird, maybe even the sacred quetzal bird.

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(16 Votes, average 4.19)
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Listen to the distorted echoes immediately after each handclap: they sound rather like a chirping bird.

The Kukulkan Pyramid in Chichen-Itza, known as “El Castillo” (the castle), is one of the seven new wonders of the world. It’s arguably the most spectacular and most frequently visited Mayan site in Mexico. If you stand at the bottom of the steps and clap your hands you get this incredible chirping sound.

Whether the pyramid was constructed to deliberately make this noise or it happened by chance is still a matter of debate among archaeologists. Reflections from the treads of the staircase are responsible for the echo being altered. The reason that a chirp like a bird is produced is because of geometry. The time between later reflections is longer than early reflections, causing the frequency of the echo to rapidly drop by about an octave.[2]

There is another sound effect here, but unfortunately as people are no longer allowed to climb the steps it’s hard to experience. Apparently, if you sit at the bottom of the stairs the sound of footsteps from people above you is like raindrops falling into a water-filled bucket rather than footsteps. The effect is caused by sound skimming the surface of the staircase. The sound reflects off the regular pattern of the stairs, creating a very distinctive effect [3].

Other acoustic phenomena

The Great Ballcourt is a huge semi-enclosed areas. If you clap your hands, the sound repeats a dozen times (this is a flutter echo) [3]. Also a whisper carries a huge distance if you speak from one of the raised areas [4].

Location

Wikipedia page.

Credits

  1. Photo: By Mariordo (Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
  2. David Lubman: http://www.ocasa.org/MayanPyramid.htm
  3. The Acoustic Raindrop Effect at Mexican Pyramids: The Architects’ Homage to the Rain God Chac?, Calleja, JAC; Declercq, NF, ACTA ACUSTICA UNITED WITH ACUSTICA, 95(5) 849-56 (2009)
  4. http://www.luckymojo.com/esoteric/interdisciplinary/architecture/ecclesiastical/mayanacoustics.html
  5. Sound (c) robgodd

Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Startling distortions of footsteps and voices in this incredibly atmospheric foot tunnel.

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(9 Votes, average 3.78)
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Is it just me, or is it virtually impossible to resist the urge to shout and whoop when you’re in a tunnel? I’ve noticed that some tunnels work better than others, and this one under the Thames near Greenwich, London is remarkably effective. A study by artist Peter Cusack found this soundscape to be one of London’s favourite sounds [1]. The sound qualities mentioned in the study included the amazingly long reverberance and echoes as well as the acoustic distortions to familiar sounds such as footsteps and voices.

The hard tiled surfaces allow the sound to rattle back and forth in the tunnel for a long time before dying away. What’s more, sound takes ages to go up and down the length of the tunnel, which leads to amazingly long echoes.

Logistics

The south end of the tunnel is at Cutty Sark Gardens, Greenwich, London. The north end is at Island Gardens. It’s open 24 hours a day, but has a hundred steps at either end.

Credits

  1. http://www.favouritelondonsounds.org/search/list.php
  2. Sound Matthias Kispert (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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(61 Votes, average 2.74)
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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

Whispering Gallery, St Paul`s Cathedral

One of the most famous whispering galleries.

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(12 Votes, average 4.08)
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St Paul’s Cathedral is an iconic building in the centre of London. High up in the central dome is a Whispering Gallery, which I remember visiting as a child. Climb 259 steps inside the dome, stand on one side of the circular gallery and talk very quietly and your speech can be heard quite clearly on the other side some 30m away.

St Paul’s is a circular whispering gallery. In this case, sound hugs the walls, allowing it to move from one side of the room to another without getting a lot quieter – the diagram shows some of the paths that the whispers take around the perimeter of the gallery.

Diagram showing sound in a circular whispering gallery
Sound paths in a circular whispering gallery

Location and Logistics

St Paul’s Cathedral, St Paul’s Churchyard, London, EC4M 8AD.  It’s worth arriving early in the morning and going straight to the Dome, because once the space gets busy it’s hard to pick out the whispering gallery effect amongst the hubbub.

Credits

[*] Picture Nanonic Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Great Court British Museum

An amazing cacophony in the largest covered public square in Europe

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(5 Votes, average 4.20)
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This place has a remarkable acoustic which complements the beautiful architecture. Opened in 2000, the court wraps around the circular central reading room, providing a huge circulation space with cafes, information points and shops. The sound of people talking and walking echoes throughout the space. The soundscape is a cacophony of indistinct speech and other blurred sounds.

Large reverberant spaces are familiar to us all, but the sheer size of the Great Court along with the number of people creating the sound makes this space ear-conic. The only downside to the great sound effect is that it makes conversations difficult to hold in the cafes – as I found out when I foolishly tried to hold a business meeting there.

Incidentally, audio nerds can also wander around and look for the Intellivox loudspeakers; an interesting technology which attempts to make public address announcements intelligible in cavernous spaces.

Logistics

The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG. Can only be visited when the museum is open. The Great Court is free to enter. Most impressive when busiest (weekends, school holidays etc.)

Credits

  1. http://www.britishmuseum.org/the_museum/history_and_the_building/great_court.aspx
  2. Photo: M.chohan
  3. Sound ERH (c) some rights reserved