Turning New York City’s Subway Into a Symphony

Musician James Murphy wants to replace the beeps of the system’s turnstiles with beautiful music

smithsonian.com

Think about the last time you were in a train or subway station. What did you hear? Clattering and squealing, probably, along with the loud, robotic beeps of train doors closing or people swiping train passes.  

Musician James Murphy would like to change that. The former frontman for LCD Soundsystem wants to turn the New York City subway into an ear-pleasing electronic symphony. He imagines turnstiles that, instead of beeping, play melodic notes as riders swipe their cards to enter the system.

“Rush hour, instead of being a nightmare, would suddenly become possibly the most beautiful time to be in the subway,” says Murphy, in a new video that is part of Heineken's "Open Your City" advertising campaign, promoting creative urban projects. The soft beeps and boops of his musical turnstiles are at first reminiscent of a child picking out notes on a toy piano, but as traffic builds and they become more frequent, the soundtrack takes on a more sci-fi edge.

Murphy has been tinkering with idea of bringing music to the subway for some 20 years, says Quinn Kilbury, a senior director at Heineken USA. When the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced in 2014 it would be phasing out its swipe card system and going fully electronic beginning in 2019, Murphy saw an opportunity. Unfortunately, the MTA has been less than responsive. 

"The MTA has never spoken to him, and they've never spoken to us, and they don’t want to," Kilbury says.

So Murphy and Heineken are trying to win favor for the subway system in the court of public opinion, gathering Twitter likes and raising awareness of the project among New Yorkers. "We’ve spent the last several months building a coalition and doing everything we can do," Kilbury says. 

Designers have created a prototype of the turnstile. According to Kilbury, if Heineken funds the software for the new turnstiles, it shouldn't cost the MTA any extra money to make the switch. 

Changing the subway sounds has potential implications for the visually impaired, an extra challenge for Murphy and Heineken. “The problem is that the tones that you hear in the subway turnstile are there as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act so that our visually impaired customers will be able to tell if their subway swipe was accepted,” MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg told The Guardian. It is understood that one beep means a rider has paid the fare, whereas two beeps signals the user to try swiping a card again and three warns that the person has underpaid. Murphy says he’s working with disability rights groups to address these concerns. Kilbury says they plan to make an announcement about a new solution in the next few weeks.

“I believe that music makes people happy, and it can make them reflective. And I think people who are willing to do what it takes to live and work here—the commutes, the crowd, the costs—they deserve a little sonic gift on their way home or to work or wherever,” Murphy says, in the video. “The turnstile has to make a sound. It might as well be beautiful.”

Some cities are already way ahead of Murphy when it comes to riders’ sonic experience. In Tokyo, as well as other Japanese cities, chatting on cellphones while riding mass transit is considered horrifyingly rude. As a result, subway cars are peaceful, punctured only by the pleasant, even voice announcing the stops. Turnstiles make a dinging sound not unlike a doorbell, which echoes through the tiled modern stations along with the high heels of office workers.

Hong Kong’s MTR system is widely seen as one of the best in the world. There is a soft triple beep when the train doors open and close, and a comfortingly schoolmarmish “MTR Lady” announces the next station in Cantonese, Mandarin and English and warns passengers to mind the platform gap. The characteristic three-tone beep of the closing doors in Berlin’s S-Bahn is so memorable it’s been incorporated into a song by electronic musician Paul Kalkbrenner. Toronto’s three-part chime is both loved and hated by TTC riders.

While the NYC subway may be a riot of shouts and squealing metal, it’s also home to one of the world’s best and most egalitarian music programs, Music Under New York. Each year classical cellists, blues singers, Spanish guitarists, indie rock bands and others give some 7,500 performances for commuters.  

So even if Murphy’s project doesn’t work out and the harsh beeps are here to stay, there’s still plenty of good stuff to listen to during your commute. And as research suggests, listening to music on your commute can make you happier. "[T]ravel time of car and PT [public transportation] users is valued as less negative when listening to music," reports reserachers in the Journal of Transport Geography

Since a strong body of research shows that commuting is one of the least happy parts of the average person's day, anything that brightens it just a little is a valuble thing indeed. 

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