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.
A spherical room that allows you to whisper sweet nothings in your ear!
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.
A disused listening station from the Cold War that has powerful echoes from the near-spherical radome and you can whisper into your own ears.
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The abandoned spy station at Teufelsberg, Berlin is on top of Devil’s Mountain rising up from the Grünewald forest. This man-made hill was constructed from millions of cubic metres of rubble created by bombing raids and artillery bombardments during World War II. The remarkable acoustics is in the almost spherical radome on top of the highest derelict tower. These domes used to cover listening equipment used by the British and Americans to spy on the East. There are a number of different sounds effects you can play with in the dome. Climb on top of the concrete plinth and get into the middle of the sphere and the strong focus creates richocheting sounds when you clap your hands.
Alternatively, you can try whispering just off-centre, and see if you can find the right spot for whispering into one of your own ears. If you go to the side of the dome and a friend goes to the opposite side, you can use the walls as a whispering gallery. Whisper into the wall and your voice will skim the inside of the walls and your friend will hear your words apparently emerging from the graffitied walls. If instead of whispering quietly you make a loud bang near a wall, then you can hear the bang pass you several times as it does complete circuits of the dome walls. This sound example has three balloon bursts:
Being reverberant, the dome also attracts musicians to play music.
There’s crazy acoustics in this mausoleum: a whispering gallery and also an echo chamber..
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This vast 17th century mausoleum includes the second largest dome of its type in the World, but the acoustics are even more impressive. Getting to the whispering gallery underneath the dome involves climbing a hundred or so steep, crumbly steps. If you go early enough in the day when it’s not too busy, then you can test the whispering gallery. Sound hugs the inside of the dome so a whisper can be heard nearly 40m away on the other side of the gallery.
However, if you get to this place after the crowds have arrived then the soundscape isn’t so serene. Indeed downstairs, it’s more like a municipal swimming pool during a kids’ float session. They’ll be endless whooping and shouting as visitors test out the echo. The repeating echo in this building is unusual and well worth seeking out by sound tourists. Sound keeps bouncing around the dome, so that every 3 or 4 times seconds the sound whizzes past your ear. At quiet times, this repeating echo can be heard 7-10 times before it becomes inaudible.
In Vijayapura, you need to arrive early if you don’t want to be deafened by a cacophony of mass acoustic-induced hysteria.
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.
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.
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.