Shhhh…what is the secret of the whispering gallery? You may have heard some whispers around but not sure what it’s all about? Let us help you with exploring this interesting phenomenon.
Curves and towering domes are truly magnificent pieces of architecture that inherently have some interesting acoustical properties as well. In recent years, whispering galleries have seen increased visitors due to their incredible use of the curved surface and circular walls to manipulate sound and light which produces that whispering gallery effect.
A whisper to be heard clearly across other parts of the gallery, it typically appears beneath a towering dome or a vault and is a circular or elliptical enclosure. The name comes from the fact that waves of sound carried under them are known as whispering-gallery waves. They travel around the circumference, clinging to the walls. To put it simply – your whispers will have quite a journey through constructions like this. This is often paired with circular walkways to enhance the experience. Sliding through concave walls like a sort of sonic roller-coaster, it’s architectural history and physics coming together at once!
Acoustical properties in whispering galleries
This phenomenon was first discovered in the whispering gallery of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Whispering gallery waves are a type of sound waves that travel around a concave surface. These types of waves were discovered and explained by Lord Rayleigh during the year 1878. He explained this phenomenon with a series of sound rays making up chords in a gallery. Lord Rayleigh worked on this theory later in 1910 and in 1914. Whispering gallery waves combine both resonance and interference, creating that interesting phenomenon where you can hear whispers on a completely different end of the dome. These types of sound waves found a different application today in astronomy, nondestructive testing, cooling, and sensing.
Whispering gallery examples
There are many whispering galleries in museums and other architectural feats throughout the world. For example, New York City is home to at least two. The first is the gallery in front of the Oyster Bar restaurant in the Grand Central Terminal. The TV show ‘’How I Met Your Mother’’ featured another whispering gallery at the Natural History Museum in Manhattan where characters on the show have fun whispering phrases to surprise listeners across the museum. But that is just the beginning! If you want to explore this interesting phenomenon, we have more recommendations.
- The U.S. Capitol Building, Washington D.C. – Long before the invention of microphones, this amazing building helped to amplify sound, so that the members of Congress could be heard loud and clear by their colleagues. (There is also a very interesting urban legend that John Quincy Adams would pretend he was sleeping while actually listening to his opponents’ whispers.)
- Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China – This structure was used for religious ceremonies that aimed to secure rich harvests… yet, today it is popular because of the rich acoustics. It holds half a millennium of whispers. If you would like to hear the sound of whispers locked in time, we advise you to arrive at the Temple of Heaven very early in the morning to avoid the crowds of people with the same goal in their mind.
- The Bench of Whispers, Santiago de Compostela, Spain– A whispering gallery doesn’t need to be under a dome. Sometimes curved space is enough. This bench is known as a meeting place for lovers, where they can get their privacy and exchange their secrets. The romance just exudes from this infamous bench.
- The Whispering Arch (Flüsterbogen), Görlitz, Germany – Like something straight from the medieval era, the Flüsterbogen is a well-kept secret because it is located in a regular building, not a mausoleum or a church. In fact, it’s pretty easy to miss, even though this so-called ‘’Whispering Arch’’ carries sound 22 ft.away.
- The Gol Gumbaz Mausoleum, Bijapur, India – The final resting place of Sultan Muhammad Adil Shah is a very popular tourist attraction today. Gol Gumbaz literally translates as ‘’circular dome’’. Whispers can be heard on the opposite side even 44 ft away.
- St.Paul’s Cathedral in London – Arguably the most famous example, you can send your whispers to an unforgettable ride. This is the place where Lord Rayleigh experimented with sound and you can recreate his experiment today! You will enjoy the amazing architecture, atmosphere and make incredible memories along the way.
- Grand Central Station in New York – New York is known for many wonders, one of which is the Grand Central Station used by thousands of people a day. On the lower floor of the terminal, you will discover a corner-to-corner whispering gallery. This effect has been produced by what is called “Gustavino” tiles. They are named after the Spanish tile worker Rafael Guastavino who has done amazing work in other parts of the city.
Nature has its own whispering galleries
Whispering galleries also appear in nature. The Barossa Reservoir in South Australia was built to supply water to northern country areas. At the time of its completion, it was the tallest reservoir in Australia with a height of over 118 feet. The curved retaining wall of the dam creates a parabola effect for the whispering gallery, which has earned this dam the title of “Whispering Wall”. It carries sound clearly over almost 460 feet. Another amazing example of the whispering gallery is The Ear of Dionysius (Italian: Orecchio di Dionisio). The Ear of Dionysius is a limestone cave on the island of Sicily. It is famous because of the acoustic effects inside the cave.
We surely would like to visit some of these unique places and experience this interesting phenomenon. The world of sound never stops surprising and amazing us. Have you visited any whispering gallery? What was your experience? Did it live up to the hype?