melody road

At the Right Speed, These Roads Sing: The Idea and History Behind the Musical Road

Many people claim the sound and vibration of the road lulls them to sleep, like a strange sort of lullaby. But what if a road could literally sing you a lullaby, not just act like one? This is the idea behind musical roads, a growing style of public art that uses the road to make music for passengers.

The concept is simple: cars transfer sound from their wheels up to the passengers when on different surfaces. The road’s texture and materials, even the speed of the car, all change what passengers hear off the road. In a lot of ways, the car acts just like a needle on a record player, emitting different sounds according to the grooves on the road. Some public artists thought they could change this sound from often unnoticed background noise into something much better, and the rest was people travelling along to different tunes using the car itself for music, not the stereo. But don’t expect to speed along while listening to the songs, they’re best heard at 28 mph. Any faster and the song sounds like it’s being fast-forwarded. Any less and it’s in slow motion.

The idea started back in the 90s, 1995 to be exact, as an art project by two Danish artists named Steen Krarup Jensen and Jakob Freud-Magnus. Built in their native country of Denmark, they dubbed their musical road the “Asphaltophone” and unknowingly started a new type of public art. Jensen and Frued-Magnus used raised pavement markers to make a series of sounds. Though rudimentary, the idea of a musical highway soon caught on.

A few years later, a Japanese man named Shizuo Shinoda accidentally scraped a road with his bulldozer, later noticing that the grooves caused strange sounds in his car when he drove over them. Curious about the phenomenon, Shinoda began experimenting with the grooves. In 2007, his experiments caught the attention of the Hokkaido National Industrial Research Institute. The Institute had previously been working on an infra-red system for detecting dangerous road conditions, but they soon used the technology to refine Shinoda’s idea. “Melody Road” opened not long after in Hokkaido, and since then the Institute has built two more roads in Wakayama and Gunma.

The idea has since popped up in the United States, specifically in Lancaster, CA. The road played the theme from “The Lone Ranger” when driven over, but residents soon complained and the road was paved over in 2008. A couple of years later, the road (or rather, the song) was successfully rebuilt near the original site where people who wish to drive in silence can avoid the musical lane.

The musical road combines science and art to create a unique experience in tune with modern life. The very idea challenges not just how we listen to music, but how we drive, and boasts a new way to make art public and participatory. Many forms of public art are purely visual or purely audible, but musical roads combine the both into something very different. And hey, hearing “The Lone Ranger” theme is a pretty cool way to break up your road trip playlist.