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Play us a dune!

Sand: A Journey Through Science And The Imagination
Michael Welland
OUP, 320pp, £18.99
ISBN 978-0-19-956318-0

‘Did you know that the Sand Mountain in Nevada emits a low C, while dunes in Chile sound an F, and those in Morocco a G#?’

Me neither. But that’s not the only thing you’ll learn about ‘the sand of music’ from Michael Welland’s genial and comprehensive monograph.

The ‘singing’ or ‘booming’ sands of the world have achieved literary immortality in the works not only of desert specialists like Thesiger and Ralph Bagnold but also of Marco Polo, Darwin, and Guy de Maupassant. These eerie sounds occur most commonly at night, but change according to season; are recorded as sounding like almost every instrument from alto sax to zither; and are ascribed variously to ‘jinns, sirens, the bells of buried churches, or the drummer of death.’

The real causes are more prosaic (though, nota bene, wind is never mentioned). On a trip to El Salvador, Darwin noted ‘the “chirping” sounds made by horses’ hooves in the sand’ – and the fact that C.9th Chinese villagers ritually worshipped their ‘Hill of Sounding Sand’ by sliding, en masse, down its slopes will have had something to do with the noises it emitted. The sheer range of naturally-occurring sounds is less quickly explained, though, and scientists have spent some considerable effort – and no doubt had a little fun – trying to recreate the full orchestra.

But there’s more to sand than scenery that provides its own soundtrack (or ‘sandtrack’, I suppose).

Welland highlights the uses of sand both in rhythm instruments and instead of them – Leroy Anderson, for example, using sandpaper to mimic the sound of Fred Astaire’s ‘sand shuffle’ – as well as in audio equipment (‘aficionados of the production of fine sound use the damping qualities of sand to stabilize speakers and other audio equipment’). Sometimes it was just a prompt for inspiration: Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, had his living-room grand piano installed in a sandbox (no resultant sonic effect is noted). And, very occasionally, it was even the end product: here and there you find a song with sand in its lyrics.

Coming full circle, perhaps, Welland discusses how, since the late-C.18th, sand has been used to explore the nature of sound itself, thanks to Leipzig scientist and musician Ernst Chladni, who drew his violin bow across the edge of a glass plate covered in sand (which duly formed regular patterns, rendering sound waves ‘visible’) and thereby inventing the science of acoustics. A science which, rather more recently, has enabled investigation into (inter alia) how the sand scorpion uses microscopic, low-frequency sound waves to detect the approach of potential prey and the acoustic qualities of sand to navigate towards it.

Welland acknowledges that there is still a certain level of debate on these issues and his index provides leads on several articles that could be useful, should readers feel inclined to seek out more detail. But for those with an interest in acoustic theory or music technology – not to mention undergraduates still searching for a juicier-than-average dissertation topic – Sand offers plenty of grist to the mill.

For Music Teacher. Not published.

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