James Murphy's Subway Symphony | WBEZ
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Studio 360

Can the subway become a musical instrument?

James Murphy first started thinking about music on the subway when he was in Japan. 

“I was on a metro in Tokyo. I noticed the sounds were quite lovely and gentle and I was like, ‘How nice that they would do this,’” Murphy says. 

While at the airport in Barcelona, Murphy, who was in the band LCD Soundsystem, heard tri-toned bells that reminded him of his favorite song from childhood. But, back home in New York City, he returned to the chaotic, shrill turnstile beeps that form the soundtrack of the New York City subway system. Eventually, Murphy asked a question that should have been asked years ago: What if the New York subway started sounding, well, nicer?

Subway Symphony is Murphy’s answer to that question. His idea: a system in which each subway stop has a unique sequence of four tones. Every turnstile swipe emits one of the tones, or one of a series of complementary tones. It would create a unique cluster of sounds in every subway stop, helping riders identify their destination by ear. No set of notes would be repeated twice, but all the stops in a neighborhood would have similar chords.

“You may never hear the same thing again. Sometimes it may be a cluster of four notes as people go through at the same moment. Sometimes it'll be like a bunch of staccato. Sometimes it'll be like a languid one note at a time because it's not that active. It really depends on how many turnstiles, how busy it is. It’s constantly changing,” Murphy says. 

So far the people who run the New York City subway system don’t seem very interested in Murphy’s idea, but he has gone ahead with developing the plan anyway. 

“People are very proud of where in the city they’re from,” Murphy says. “These tones could be a way of locating yourself. I think 20 years from now, people will grow up and think, ‘These are the sounds from where I came from.’ The sounds become a part of the city’s fabric.”

You can add your signature to his online petition to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority here.

This article is based on a story that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen. 

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