Subway Symphony: NYC Turnstiles Transformed Into Musical Instruments

subway symphony nycNew York City’s subway system is filled with screeching subway cars, robotic dings of train doors closing, and the annoyingly high-pitched beeps every time commuters swipe their MetroCards through the turnstiles. But what if the stations were filled with beautiful music instead? Former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy dreams of turning turnstiles into musical instruments through his Subway Symphony campaign with Heineken.

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Swiping your card through a turnstile could sound more like a wind chime than the current irritating beeping sound, particularly when you don’t have enough fare loaded. For the past 20 years, Murphy has wanted to change the way the city’s commuters have experienced the subway system through sound. If the turnstiles have to make noise, why shouldn’t it be a more harmonious sound?

“I believe that music makes people happy, and it can make them reflective,” he says in a video for the project, adding, “The turnstile has to make a sound. It might as well be beautiful.”

Now that he’s being backed by Heineken as part of their “Open Your City” initiative to promote creative urban projects, designers have already created prototype turnstiles, which he hopes to install in stations. Fully incorporated turnstiles would blend to play distinct melodies for each subway stop as part of the creative subway project.

Watch a video of Murphy explaining the project:

Photo and video via Subway Symphony

Murphy saw an opportunity in 2014 when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced it would be phasing out the swipe card system to upgrade to a digital Tap-and-Ride turnstile system beginning in 2019. If Heineken funds the software for the new turnstiles as planned, plans for the Subway Symphony could piggyback on MTA’s plans to upgrade, and wouldn’t even cost the MTA extra to make the switch with better sounds. The Subway Symphony team would provide the code with the new sonic frequencies to MTA for them to program with the new hardware. Essentially, it would cost the same to put in a bad noise as a good noise.

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Right now, the Subway Symphony team is working on making the noises easily distinguishable so visually impaired riders can hear tones against other subway sounds, which involves more than just harmonizing. To do so, they’ll have to present a chord progression of seven or eight tones to cover the requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Currently, the turnstiles play a flat beep to allow commuters to pass through and a double flat beep if you have insufficient fare. They’ve been working on a sound profile with sound designers and engineers from Arup and Hypersonic in a Brooklyn studio.

While it might not be a reality in NYC anytime soon, rethinking the sounds of public transit isn’t a new concept for other cities around the world, including the soft triple beep when the train doors of Hong Kong’s MTR system open and close. And NYC isn’t without musical ambiance within it’s underground stations; the Music Under New York program provides nearly 7,500 classical, blues, guitar, indie rock and other performances for commuters within the system each year. Still, a more musical turnstile system would help riders start their commute on the right note each day.

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Do you think the Subway Symphony would make your commute better?

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