Why Do Shells Sound Like the Ocean?
Kevin in Bentonville, Arkansas, wrote in to ask this question: "Why do you hear the ocean when you put a seashell up to your ear?"
All right, first things first: no matter how much it may sound like the rolling waves, it's not actually the ocean you're hearing in a shell.
Now that we've got that out of the way, what exactly is it that you're hearing? In a word, noise; the ambient noise that's being produced all around and inside you, which you normally don't hear or pay attention to because it's too quiet.
To amplify this noise so you can hear it clearly, you need a resonator. Want to make one on the cheap? Form an O shape with your mouth and flick your finger against your throat or cheek. You should hear a note. Make a smaller or larger O, or change the shape of your mouth, and you'll get different notes. Sort of like this. What you're doing here is letting your mouth fulfill its potential as a Helmholtz resonator, where sound is produced by air vibrating in a cavity with one opening. Different pitches can be coaxed out by changing the shape of the resonating cavity.
The seashell you're listening to—the inside of which has many hard, curved surfaces great for reflecting sound—is essentially doing the same thing you just did with your mouth. The ambient noise mentioned before—the air moving past and within the shell, the blood flowing through your head, the conversation going on in the next room—is resonating inside the cavity of the shell, being amplified and becoming clear enough for us to notice. Just like the various shapes we make with our mouths will produce different pitches, different sizes and shapes of shell sound different because different resonant chambers will amplify different frequencies.
The fact that all shells sound just a little bit like the ocean is purely coincidental. Holding any sort of Helmholtz resonator to your ear will produce a similar effect, whether that object is associated with the ocean or not. Put an empty glass over your ear or even cup your hand over it, and the sound you hear will be just about the same.