In a world dominated by spectacle, what are the auditory equivalents of the Eiffel Tower, Stonehenge, or the Grand Canyon? On vacation some years ago, I was leafing through a travel guide for sights to see and experiences to be had. It suddenly struck me that the book mentioned nothing about sound. It’s easy to overlook how important what we hear is to our travels. After all, we have no “earlids” and so our brain is always listening to the soundscape. If your ears chose your next holiday destination, where would they go? Here are 15 places to visit for extraordinary sounds.
Bang a rock gong in Tanzania
A xylophone made from stone might seem an unusual musical instrument, more likely to produce a disappointing clunk than a sonorous bong, but certain stones can make beautiful notes if the microscopic structure of the rock is right. Strike the rock gongs in Tanzania’s Serengeti, and you get a wonderful metallic clang. These large boulders are covered in percussive marks from thousands of years of use. Such “rock music” provides some of the earliest evidence of sounds our ancestors made.
Hear a pin drop in an ancient Greek theater
Dating from the fourth century B.C., the ancient theater at Epidaurus is a Greek architectural masterpiece and one of the earliest structures that we know was designed with sound in mind. The steep banking and semicircular shape get the audience as close to the stage as possible, in order to hear the performers better. Tour guides delight in demonstrating the theater’s “perfect” acoustics, astonishing visitors as a pin dropped on the stage is heard toward the back of the vast amphitheater of stone seats.
Shout in India’s whispering gallery
The grand, 17th-century mausoleum of Gol Gumbaz is a testament to the power of Sultan Adil Shah, ruler of Bijapur, who is buried here in Vijayapura, India. With its slender octagonal turrets at each of its four corners and a circular dome above, the tomb is a majestic sight. But people travel here for the chance to shout in its famed whispering gallery. Make a sound near the inside walls of the dome, and it will hug the concave surface, repeating your voice over and over as the sound does laps around the roof.
Sing in Norway’s frescoed mausoleum
Artist Emanuel Vigeland (1875-1948) originally built Tomba Emmanuelle in 1926 as a museum for his works in Oslo, Norway. But when he decided the building should also serve as his tomb, he transformed the soaring barrel vaulted main hall into a dimly lit space covered in frescoes depicting every aspect of life, from conception to death, including some extremely explicit images. The space is wonderfully responsive to sound. Sing a note, and it reverberates around the room and cascades gently from the arched roof.
Revel in the acoustics of Boston’s Symphony Hall
Home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall is a mecca for someone like me who is fascinated by aural architecture. Completed in 1900, it was the first auditorium where modern science helped make a great-sounding venue. When I visited, I reveled in how the hall’s acoustics enhanced the orchestra’s music. As the 20th-century conductor Sir Adrian Boult put it, “The ideal concert hall is obviously that into which you make a not very pleasant sound, and the audience receives something that is quite beautiful.”
Savor the sounds of Croatia’s sea organ
Built into Zadar’s promenade are 35 organ pipes that sound while waves lap against the shore; as you walk along Croatia’s seafront, the melody and harmonies change. The waves’ movement pushes air in and out of the organ pipes to create the notes at random, but overall what is heard is surprisingly pleasing because the pipes have been tuned to harmonies used in local folk music. You can visit other wave organs in San Francisco, California, and Blackpool, England.
Listen to ethereal tunes in an underground cavern
Virginia’s Luray Caverns has the most amazing stalactites and stalagmites. I went there to hear a sonic treasure, an organ that creates music by tapping the cave formations. Tunes take on an ethereal quality as the sound echoes around the large cavern. Created back in the 1950s, the Great Stalacpipe Organ was the brainchild of Leland W. Sprinkle. He spent three years armed with a small hammer and a tuning fork, searching for the right cave formations to make each note.
Hoot and holler in England’s 1940s railway tunnel
Tunnels are lots of fun to shout in, as any toddler will readily demonstrate, but here is one whose sound is particularly unusual. The disused Thurgoland railway tunnel in Yorkshire now forms part of the U.K.’s National Cycle Network. Constructed in the 1940s, it has an unusual cross-section with bulging walls that form a horseshoe shape. Along with the very smooth and thick concrete walls, this creates an aural treat. Shout in the tunnel and you hear an extraordinary metallic flutter as the sound bounces around and slowly dies away.
Spot the superb lyrebird in Australia’s rainforest
The superb lyrebird is one of the world’s most skillful vocal impersonators. It can mimic the calls of about 20 other species it hears in southeast Australia’s rainforest, including whip birds and kookaburras. This strange amalgamation of sounds is sung to impress possible mates, with the male performing from a stage it builds on the rainforest floor. Even more remarkably, birds brought up in captivity impersonate man-made sounds, like car alarms, chainsaws, and the click of camera shutters.
Create echoes inside Iran’s striking mosque
Constructed in the 17th century in Isfahan, the Imam (Shah) Mosque is stunning, with dazzling blue Islamic tiles. The huge domed roof is what creates this sonic wonder. Tour guides will stand underneath the dome and flick a piece of paper to create about seven quick-fire echoes: “clack, clack, clack...” Sound bounces back and forth between the floor and ceiling, with the curved dome focusing the echo, forcing it to keep moving up and down in a regimented fashion.
Slide down singing sand dunes in Kazakhstan
Marco Polo ascribed the boom of sand dunes to mischievous spirits creating music with the beat of drums and the clash of arms. When you slide down this dune in Kazakhstan’s Altyn-Emel National Park and create a sand avalanche, you’ll feel the surface quaking beneath you as a loud drone fills the air. Only a few dunes have just the right type of sand, as thousands of grains synchronize their movements and sing in a coordinated choir.
Drive down California’s musical road
This peculiar stretch of road in Lancaster, California, creates a rendition of Rossini’s William Tell overture (used as the theme song for The Lone Ranger). The musical notes are created by a set of grooves that vibrate the car wheels like a rumble strip. To get a melody, the Lancaster road has some grooves bunched close together to get high notes, and ones farther apart to get low ones. The fidelity might be poor and the melody out of tune, but I found it impossible not to smile while driving over it.
Clap in front of a pyramid at Chichén Itzá
The 79-foot Maya step pyramid Kukulkan, aka “El Castillo” (the castle), sits at the center of the archaeological site of Chichén Itzá, Mexico. If you stand at the bottom of the steps and clap your hands, you get this incredible chirping sound. Whether it was constructed deliberately to make this noise or the sound is an accidental sonic marvel remains a matter of debate. The regular pattern of sound bouncing off the treads of the staircase is responsible for the chirp.
Sit in Salford’s ultrasilent room
In this ultrasilent room, sound does not reflect from the foam-studded walls. But you don’t hear silence. Instead you often get the disconcerting experience of hearing body sounds like your blood pumping. It’s an oppressive place in which some people last only a few minutes. The chamber at the University of Salford in England is open to the public a couple of days a year. Chambers can also be found in Minnesota and California.
Listen to Norway’s bearded seals with a hydrophone
Listen to the call of a bearded seal, and it’s hard to believe that this is natural. It sounds more like a sound effect from a sci-fi movie. In Svalbard, Norway, male bearded seals descend underwater in spirals, singing and releasing bubbles. They create long drawn-out whistling glissandi, with the pitch of the sound gradually dropping. It’s thought that the longer the glissando, the more attractive the male is to females. To hear this sound, you need to use a hydrophone, an underwater microphone.
Trevor Cox is a professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford, U.K., and author of The Sound Book. Follow him on Instagram.
This story was published in the August/September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.