London’s Streets Become A Sprawling, Digital Music Instrument

What if we reimagined annoying traffic as a grand musical score?

It sounds like something we’d hear from deep space. Strange, blipping radio signals being emitted by stellar objects. In reality, they’re just normal cars and trucks, driving down the road. City Symphonies, by Mark McKeague, is traffic as you’ve never heard it before. Rather than a future of honking and squeaky brakes, McKeague imagines silent electric cars that create music through their interactions.

“If we look at the development of musical instruments and venues through history we can see how these allowed new types of sounds to emerge. With new technology, what will our future sounds be?” McKeague asks Co.Design. “In this case I saw the perfect opportunity, with the sensor-aware networked electric cars as the instruments and the street the concert hall.”

City Symphonies in its current iteration is a computer simulation. It starts with a map of famous London intersections that McKeague drew himself from satellite imagery. Your eyes aren’t fooling you: By design, the streets ever so slightly resemble bars of music. “By creating a new map it can be used as a way of looking at traffic in an abstract way and seeing the patterns that emerge. In this sense it acts like music notation–this time the city is the score,” he writes. And, drawing these maps himself allowed him to attenuate street data. OpenStreetMap–the technology behind a majority of experimental map applications today–gave him “too much information” to make sense of, so he simplified the model.

With his map in place, the cars were then added in simulation, obeying the rules of traffic as real cars would. “I spent a lot of time watching traffic trying to assess the different movements and what it would sound like if cars move past at different speeds, but there were too many variables to design the sounds of these cars one by one,” he explains. “So by using the simulation I can sketch out what this would actually sound like with numerous cars moving at different speeds and directions, and try out different ideas.”

These virtual cars then make the music through their interactions–via an algorithm–as each overpass and stoplight create different relationships between the vehicles, which in turn generates the dynamic, 3-D soundscape score of the streets. It’s as if London is one giant guitar with a thousand frets, being plucked by countless people in one impossibly complicated, collective tune.

McKeague actually has radio prototypes built to allow cars to communicate with one another, not just in his simulation, but in the real world for an actual, street-level performance. It’s hard to imagine what traffic could sound like if not inundated with cursing and diesel. Then again, that’s the entire reason why McKeague is doing so much imagining.

[Hat tip: Creative Applications]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.