Sonic Wonderland: a Scientific Odyssey of Sound by Trevor Cox

The end of sound? This sane and humane book looks at the maddening encroachment of noise into every part of our lives.

Sonic Wonderland: a Scientific Odyssey of Sound 
Trevor Cox
Bodley Head, £20, 320pp

Asked in a recent interview to nominate the “best thing he had heard in 2013”, the American songwriter Bill Callahan’s only response was: “Silence.” Setting aside the question of how he experienced this now rare phenomenon, it is hard not to take his point: the world has become increasingly cacophonous, our cities so noisy that many songbird numbers are declining, our seas a maelstrom of sonar and seabed drilling, while the same subsidy-driven class that covered upland hills with toxic conifer plantations back in the 1980s now devotes itself to industrialising our wildest and formerly quietest places. Meanwhile, new projects pollute the soundscape further. As Trevor Cox notes:

Human-made noise is forcing animals to change their calls, including under­water animals and fish. Are offshore wind farms an environmentally friendly way to make electricity? Possibly not, if you are a harbour seal being bombarded with thumping pile driving as the turbines are installed in the seabed . . . the noise generated by pile driving is huge . . . and could physically damage the auditory systems of animals.

Yet it is not just birds and seals that are affected: noise pollution also causes significant physical and psychological stresses in humans. In spite of visionary warnings – going back to the Nobel prizewinner Robert Koch’s 1905 remark, “The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague” – we have been slow to see the impact of the maddening racket we make, on our environment and on ourselves.

The end of silence is just one aspect of the modern soundscape, however. Of equal concern is a growing reduction in quality, (the difference, to put it crudely, between sound and noise) and it is sound quality that Cox explores and celebrates in this scrupulous and compelling “scientific odyssey”. An acoustic engineer, Cox dedicates his life to eliminating bad soundscapes, (or restoring damaged ones), with an emphasis, in recent years, on how “poor acoustics and high noise levels in classrooms affect learning” (anyone who has ever tried to do anything in an open-plan office will be cheering already). In order to eliminate all this damaging noise, though, we have to train our ears to be more sophisticated (as Cox points out, the “dom­inance of the visual has . . . dulled all of our other senses”) so that we can recognise what is good in a soundscape and what is harmful. Inured to traffic and construction noise, to muzak and mobile-phone gabble, we are becoming desensitised to the finer qualities of sound. The longer we tolerate all that noise, the further our appreciation will be degraded – and the unhealthier, both physically and mentally, we will become.

In his pioneering call for “one square inch of silence” in the American landscape, the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton recalls the Native American Chief Seattle’s poignant observation, on the occasion of being obliged to “sell” his homeland to the US government: “And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lovely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night?” It is this question of soundscape quality that marks Sonic Wonderland out, not only as a fascinating book about the more recherché areas of acoustic science but as an immensely valuable contribution to any environmentalist’s library.

Cox writes wonderfully, alternating between lyricism, expert testimony and self-deprecating humour to explore the most everyday problems an acoustician faces (how to rescue a badly built concert hall for its audience, say) as well as exotic phenomena such as singing sands and tunnels with such extreme amplification they turn the rumble of a skateboard into something that resembles “an approaching freight train”.

The chapters on the taxonomy of echoes (a delightful concept in itself and a reminder that we have failed to evolve a suitable language for conveying sounds in words) and on the ways in which sound can travel round corners are highly engaging but they also prompt wider speculation about the subtler effects of sound on our sanity.

Here, I was reminded of the Marabar Caves scene in E M Forster’s A Passage to India, of how so much of what befalls Aziz and Adela later in the book originates with that fateful echo. How many crimes, social transgressions and outbreaks of temporary madness are provoked by noise? What will we lose in ourselves if we continue to lose the quality of our soundscapes?

One cannot help thinking that Cox’s closing remark – “if we all listened to and cared for the sonic wonders around us, as I now try to do, we would start to build a better-sounding world” – is too modest; had he gone on to add “a more sane and humane world”, few would disagree, on the basis of this very sane and humane book.

Sonic Wonderland: a Scientific Odyssey of Sound. Image: Bodley Head.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The radicalism of fools

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.