Acoustics expert TREVOR COX explores and explains the sonic wonders of the world in The Sound Book.
Most travelers take photographs of their journeys. Trevor Cox collects sounds. A professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford in Greater Manchester, England, Cox has been known to bring his digital recorder, some balloons to pop, a starter’s pistol and even a saxophone to trigger and capture the unique and fleeting sounds of extraordinary spaces. He opens our ears and minds to these marvels in The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World (W. W. Norton & Company, $27).
Cox spends much of his time designing schools and concert halls and eliminating “defects” like undesirable echoes. His work inspired him to listen to sound with fresh ears. “I realized there was more to sound than just noise,” he says. “We should think about not just the negative sounds but the positive ones and celebrate those everyday sounds that we overlook.”
Cox’s itinerary of the world’s acoustic wonders naturally includes some famous “soundmarks,” such as Big Ben in London and the chirping Mayan pyramid El Castillo in Yucatán, Mexico. But he largely veers off the tourist track. He reels from the reverberation in an underground oil tank, harkens to bubbling mud pots in Iceland and ponders the sounds of silence in his university’s anechoic chamber.
“You can talk in terms of longest, loudest and so on, but for me, what makes a sonic wonder is the ‘wow’ factor,” Cox says. “It’s when a sound surprises me and makes me think, ‘What is going on here?’ ”
Readers don’t necessarily need a passport to explore such wonders; they can start in their own backyards. Birdsong, for example, perennially tops surveys of favorite sounds. But certain city-dwelling birds have had to change the time and pitch of their performances to overcome the competing din of traffic. They don’t have the option, as we humans do, of popping in earbuds and tuning out — something our brains do constantly. “There’s so much going into our ears,” Cox says. “Our brains are immensely powerful at ignoring stuff and picking out what’s important.”
So, too, is Cox. While he draws on archaeology, biology, design and neuroscience to explain our soundscape, he never lets the technical details drown out his voice or overwhelm this entertaining and highly engaging travelogue.