Subway Symphony

Subway Symphony

The New York City subway can be kind of a bummer.

“Every time you swipe your MetroCard, the turnstile emits a flat, unpleasant ‘beep,’ ” James Murphy, the former lead singer of LCD Soundsystem, told Fast Company. “It’s kind of horrible.”

So, he is petitioning to replace the turnstiles’ beeps with musical instrument notes. Every subway station would have signature notes, which would play whenever people walk through turnstiles. Even better, he says, subway lines could combine to make larger musical scores, and when lines cross, the scores would come together as a giant symphony.

Go here to hear the difference between the (awful) existing beeps vs. the potential music. How magical is that? As Murphy says: “Rush hour, instead of being a nightmare, would suddenly become possibly the most beautiful time to be in the subway.”

P.S. A subway parody and a funny subway experiment.

(Top photo by Ourit Ben-Haim for Underground New York Public Library. Via Fast Company.)

  1. That is amazing!! What an amazing idea and how beautiful would that be!

  2. What a great idea! :-)

  3. kate says...

    The MTA has repeatedly said this is not happening, FYI – budget problems notwithstanding, the current sounds are also an ADA element for visually impaired :)

    “We have heard from him, and as we’ve told him many times, we cannot do it. The tones are an ADA element for the visually impaired, and we won’t mess with them—much less take turnstiles out of service and risk disabling them for an art project. (It would be a very cool project, don’t get me wrong, but we can’t mess with turnstiles that handle 6 million customers a day for it.) As a condition of filming in the subway, we made them acknowledge that we can’t and won’t do it.”

  4. Oh my gosh, this would be such a dream! I hadn’t heard about this! What a fabulous idea! Thanks for sharing. This totally brightened up my day!

  5. alfredo ciano says...

    A BitterSweet Symphony…

  6. mosey says...

    I love it! Just signed the petition and shared the link on my FB page!
    P.S. They should add share buttons to their petition page :)

  7. Wow this is amazing <3

  8. Wow that James Murphy is genius. I love him and his music and now he wants to make some changes in transportation, this guy is one of a kind ♥.


  9. This is such a great idea! Proof that the little details of your everyday have big impact.

    Danielle | D is for Dreamer

  10. Le Smurf says...

    This is pretty cool but then I think EVERYTHING James Murphy has ever done is cool! Really looking forward to hitting New York in August for a holiday from Ireland and going to his new Organic Wine Bar in Brooklyn! Please let the soundtrack be heavy on the LCD Soundsystem tunes! Xo

  11. This is so absolutely brilliant.

    I’d welcome a more pleasant sound without thinking twice!

    People might actually look forward to the sounds they will hear when heading home from work.

  12. What a great idea! Listening to the music and poetry is one of my favorite things about Moscow subway.
    But this idea of making music instead of annoying “beeps” – that’s just awesome!

  13. While he’s at it, they should make a different sound for when you need to swipe again – especially for those “full metal jacket” turnstiles that you have to swipe and then shove your whole body into! But no matter the “style,” I hear the beep and assume I’m good to go and then WHAM! Pelvis assault! I swiped too fast! OUCH! Make the beep like “sad trombone” or “whammy” sound when you need to “swipe again!”

  14. Leeloo says...

    This seems like an episode of 99%Invisible. I highly recommend you have a listen. Creator Roman Mars is on a mission to change his cities flag. It’s all in the little details.

  15. They should totally make this happen! I do still love the sound of turnstiles now, though. Also: that video makes the subway look SO much cleaner and shiner than it really is, haha.

  16. I love this idea! Sound is such an important and, I feel, neglected part of our experience. I’d love to see this happen in NYC. Another cool place to do it would be on the train, when the doors close. I realized this when I went to Montreal a few years ago and heard pleasant sounds when the doors opened or closed.

  17. Love this!! especially since New Yorkers are so gung ho and in the zone about going home at rush hour — it would be neat to see everyone slow down a teeny bit just to enjoy something like this!

  18. Selina says...

    This reminds me of Paul Kalkbrenner, a German DJ based in Berlin who gets inspired by urban sounds, for instance the sequence that is always being played while the doors of the subway trains are closing:

  19. Rob says...

    That’s a cool idea. On the tram in Paris that goes around the periphery of the city at each stop there is a little musical tune played (it could be a saxophone, or piano, or something else) and then a woman and a man announce the stop. It’s awesome.

  20. Awesome!

  21. This is such a lovely idea! I’m always impressed by people who take an experience everyone finds annoying, ie subway beeps, but then goes one step further and pushes for a meaningful solution. Hats off!

  22. Emily R says...

    All booping and beeping makes my head HURT. Cell phones, subway turnstyles, keyboards, you name it. I think this would just make the annoying noises different, no less annoying.

  23. Amy says...

    This might just change my mind about riding the subway, which I avoid as much as possible because it is just so MISERABLE. I love this idea!

  24. What a simple but incredibly powerful idea! Thank you for always bringing us things that brighten my day! Happy Friday!

  25. Sometimes people just blow me away with how brilliant they are. What an incredible idea. I love it so much!

  26. lindsay says...

    sorry to be a downer, but there are slightly different beeps for when your swipe is valid or when you need to swipe again/your card has run out. and blind people depend on these beeps, as they can’t see the little “go” screen, to know whether to enter. if those beeps weren’t uniform, they wouldn’t know when to enter.

  27. I work in User Experience Design and this makes me so happy! What a wonderful and brilliant idea! It’s the perfect example of how something called “micro-interactions” add so much to the overall experience of a task or tool. Thank you so much for sharing!

  28. I would LOVE to take the subway under those conditions! I’m very sensitive to loud noises and it can get to me. Maybe playing musical instruments from a very young age and growing up around music makes me extra sensitive to bad noises and appreciative of pleasant sounds. It would be a heavenly subway if you ask me. It’s an awesome idea.


  29. CC says...

    This is great. I’m glad they are working on the sounds of the subway. I love that they removed the alarms from the emergency exits. This would be a wonderful addition. And then maybe the next step would be reducing the noise of the train (a girl can dream).

  30. It almost reminds me of Seatac Airport (in Seattle), where there are gold fish “swimming” along the floors. There are also several water fountains that audibly burble — like, through speakers — each time someone uses them, to continue with the water theme. They’re small details in this massive pedestrian place, but I think they make a difference!

    His idea would be beautiful! I love that he saw potential to make this moment in everyday life brighter. :)

    Always, Anita

  31. Lisa says...

    so cool!! I don’t know why but the video almost made me cry, haha

  32. This concept is really cool! Even though the beep is unpleasant, I feel like it’s one of those very NYC things that you complain about but you kinda like. Iconic, if you will, but on a smaller scale haha. I probably just feel this way about it because I’m not from NYC. I’m sure people who commute daily find it annoying after awhile :P -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey’s

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      I see your point! I sometimes feel that way about walk-ups apts, biking home in the rain, etc. sort of gives the city a personality and makes you feel a little badass;)

  33. What I love about this is how someone can look at something so pedestrian and think differently about it. There are people who don’t just take things for granted in what they see around them, but who are able to take the ordinary and turn it into something beautiful. I saw a musical staircase and also the dancing streetlights. Thinking differently at work.

    Thanks for posting. It’s inspirational one note at a time!

  34. Sounds wonderful! Hopefully that would be a step into make a subway commute more pleasant.

  35. This is fantastic. Yay, that guy and Heineken!

  36. Mandy says...

    My Husband and I visited Japan in April. We discovered that each train station plays a different tune, like “Mary had a Little Lamb” when the train is arriving. It was fun visiting a bunch of stations to hear the different tunes! :)

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      That sounds amazing. I read that Murphy was inspired by Japan!

    • Sadie says...

      I was going to say, this sounds so Japanese!

      IIRC, you could buy passes for the Tokyo metro that used RFID instead of swiping, which meant you didn’t even have to dig it out of your bag. I saw a lot of women just slamming their bag against the turnstile. Super-convenient!

  37. Leslie says...

    This sounds lovely. I hope NYC follows through!

  38. That is awesome.

  39. This would be amazing. Murphy’s idea is spot on. There’s a public art project in Montreal called 21 swings. It’s a row of 21 swings downtown where each one makes a few notes, depending on how high you swing. When you focus in on the sounds you, and the people around you, are making, it’s a really nostalgic and peaceful experience. You can have a listen here : — Now it’s something that everyone in the city looks forward to every summer. It’s absolutely wonderful. I hope Murphy’s project comes true.

  40. Erin says...

    I love this so much. This is something we Americans often forget — how possible it is to make daily life and public spaces beautiful and inspiring.