Pyramids and chirps

I’m starting to gather examples of curious acoustic effects – and the sound of the El Castillo pyramid in Mexico is a really good example. An article [1] on this has just appeared in an academic journal I help edit.

Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza

Apparently, if you sit at the bottom of the steps you think you hear rain dropping. The effect is caused by sound skimming the surface of the staircase. The sound reflects off the regular pattern of the stairs, creating a very distinctive effect. The sound of one person climbing the steps above you is probably rather like a chirp, but add together many walkers and lots of feet stomping on the stairs, and it sounds like raindrops falling into a bucket.

Was this intentional or accidental? It’s very hard to tell. In the past, human society was less vision-centric. But proving intentional acoustic design in ancient monuments is very difficult. A few academics have been trying to show that our ancestors did deliberately build sound effects into burial mounds and stone circles. But some of the claims are controversial and questioned by others.

Photo credits

[1] The Acoustic Raindrop Effect at Mexican Pyramids: The Architects’ Homage to the Rain God Chac?, Calleja, JAC; Declercq, NF, ACTA ACUSTICA UNITED WITH ACUSTICA, 95, 5, 849-856, (2009)

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2 responses to “Pyramids and chirps”

  1. Speaking of Chichen Itza. Did you know that there is a carving of Chac, the rain god on the top of the pyramid?
    The following is a list of structures and the acoustical phenomena associated with each. I have not visited all structures so there may be more to add to this list.
    El Caracol
    1) sound projection from portals in rotunda (6)

    El Castillo:
    1) Quetzal stair echo (quetzal was sacred to the Maya) (1)
    2) Raindrop falling in a bucket filled with water (1) Chac A Mayan rain god. Long, hook-nosed masks showing Chac appear on many Chichén Itzá structures. (including El Castillo)
    3) Sound projection from top (2)

    Great Ballcourt Acoustics (3)
    1) Slap echo (4)
    2) Whispering gallery (5) (8)

    Temple of the Warriors
    1) quetzal chirp from stairs (7)
    2) rattlesnake sound from colonnade (7) (8)

    1. “A theoretical study of special acoustic effects caused by the staircase of the El Castillo pyramid at the Maya ruins of Chichen-Itza in Mexico”

    2) Pyramids and Basements
    “Among Mesoamerican pre-Columbian buildings there are a series of sound effects which resemble some particular sounds that can be related to the religion or political affairs.:.)”

    3) “Special article on the acoustics of Chichen Itzá’


    5) Soundtrack for the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza

    6) Witnessed by Lubman and Van Kirk 1992

    7) Witnessed by Van Kirk 1992
    Notes: Quetzal/rattlesnakes sound was result of a handclap in front of the Temple of the

    8) The quetzal/rattlesnake effect can also be heard from El Castillo here. The snake sound is poorly

    At he top of the stars TOTW are:
    “Serpent columns, ‘Temple of the Warriors’, Chichen Itza, . Guarding the entrance to the temple, this column probably represents Kukulcan (the Mayan equivalent of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent).

    also called “Feathered rattlesnake piers”:

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