These Walls Can Sing: The Art And Science Of Cave Acoustics

Written by Jan Okeson

How long have human beings been fascinated by the spellbinding nature of sound in caves? In a July 2008 article, National Geographic highlights the research of acoustics expert legor Reznikoff.  “Prehistoric peoples likely chose places of natural resonant sound to draw famed cave sketches.” 

Heather Whipps, author of Cave Men Loved to Sing, says of Reznikoff’s research, “Analyzing the famous, ochre-splashed cave walls of France, the most densely painted areas were also those with the best acoustics.  Humming into some bends in the wall even produced sounds mimicking the animals painted there.”  This interesting finding demonstrates that the properties of sound in caves, especially those produced by the range of the human voice, were being recognized and appreciated over 30,000 years ago!

Archaeoacoustics is the use of acoustical study as a methodological approach within archaeology. Steven Waller of the American Rock Art Research Association has studied rock art sites around the world. Waller suspects that echoing locations such as caves and canyons would have been considered sacred, and were decorated with the images evoked upon hearing the echoes.

We experience spaces, not only by seeing, but also by listening. Stone Age performers may have used caves to intensify and emphasize music, similar to how choirs use domed churches today. “Such resonant spaces inspire singing,” the National Geographic article explains.  

In Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter explore how we experience spaces through attentive listening. They point out that every environment has a unique “aural architecture” and that even modern performers continue to perform and record music in numerous caves around the world. Natural caverns, as in cathedrals or other sacred settings, blend music with the silence, resonance, reverberation and echo of these unique environments.

Each year visitors to Cave of the Mounds experience the captivating acoustics of the underground. Here is just a partial list of the variety of sounds that have echoed through the cave over the years

 

“When I hear music . . . I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.” – Henry David Thoreau