How to Understand Acoustics

by Dana Kroos


According to Merriam-Webster:

acous·tics Pronunciation: e’-küs-tiks Function: noun plural
1 singular in construction : a science that deals with the production, control, transmission, reception, and effects of sound
2 also acoustic : qualities that determine the ability of an enclosure to reflect sound waves in such a way as to produce distinct hearing



The relationship between environment and sound is learned through trial and error. Sing from the diaphragm. Do not let the voice escape, but force it from your lungs, your throat, your lips. Feel it expand as it leaves you. Listen to the way it resonates. Create flowing vibration: the deep brassy reflection of ancient stone, hand-formed steel, cavernous darkness. You want the amplification that comes without echo, which allows you to hear you own voice as though it lived independent of you, as though it went to work, slept, dreamt, wooed, despaired and overjoyed in the complexities of its own history.


In the Cape a white woman discovered a native garbage man who sang opera like Pavarotti. She convinced the city opera house to let him perform for one night, bought him a tuxedo and had his hair cut. The news showed him singing as he worked the truck, the sound of dumping garbage crushed behind the tenor. We were all amazed.

In school we studied the planets, the first landing on the moon, the silence of Apollo 13, the tragedy of the Challenger exploding like a firework again and again on the informative video.

       “There is no sound in outer space,” Teacher said. “Sound can only travel when there is a medium for it to travel through.”

The class asked:
“What void is so desperate that even a voice cannot escape?”


My people are English, exiled in the 1600’s when the king was discarding people like low cards in a full deck: poor, sick, some thieves, some worse—not many. We were put on ships, sent off to anyplace deserted enough to take us, sometimes just out to sea until supplies ran thin, left to chase rats, drink sea water and haunt the hollow waves twelve generations later as cruise ships trampled thousands of feet overhead. Some arrived in Australia, Africa, America, in jails, in towns, discovering new lands, running for office, crowding subway stations, wearing printed tee-shirts with retro logos, worrying about cell phone companies and losing their latest pounds. The only memory my people have of that time is a broken stopwatch passed through the first born sons, reporting nothing but March 7th, 3:35 p.m..

Still, we felt nostalgic when the deep-sea divers found the partial wreck of the St. George III, the prison ship that had caught fire off the coast centuries earlier. In the midst of an uprising a cargo full of prisoners went free in time to make their own choice to die in flames or water. People on shore watched, breathless, only wondering if they heard screams rolling across the water.


Proof is what’s known:
The speed of any wave depends upon the properties of the medium through which it passes. Rigid materials will maintain their shape when waves move within them; however, elastic materials deform or change shape readily. Because of this, sound waves travel faster through solids than they do through liquids.

The speed of sound through air : 343 m/s.
The speed of sound through water: 1433 m/s.
The speed of sound through iron: 5130 m/s.


My mother recited prayers in the ocean because, she said, she liked the way they sounded. She would divide “Amen” between the air and water:
“A” loud and clear to the sky, “men” bubbling out into the salty sea.

I would sink with her, close my eyes and listen to the echoes, seeming to travel through great distances, over time, recalling all that the ocean had allowed and claimed.


From the Cape, the broadcast of the national opera came along wires to our waiting eyes. On the stage, framed in velvet, under lights, the native garbage man bowed. A man whose people had never been cast-out, but burned—instead—where they stood. He opened his mouth, but no sound came.

The audience waited.

Faces Fell.

Eyes looked away.

“Of course,” Teacher said.

DanaKroos_Bulletin-picDana Kroos received an MFA in fiction writing from New Mexico State University. Her short stories and poems have appeared in Penumbra, The Superstition Review, Minnesota Monthly and others and are upcoming in Glimmer Train and The Florida Review. She also holds an MFA in ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MA in fine art from Purdue University. Dana is the recipient of a Fulbright Award and is currently researching a writing project in Newfoundland, Canada.

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