James Murphy Has Plans To Revolutionize the Subway Sound System

LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy wants to bring more soothing tones to the chaotic soundtrack of the New York City subway system. 

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James Murphy, frontman of the now-defunct LCD Soundsystem, has launched a campaign to make the sound of the New York City subway a little lighter on the ears.

Since LCD Soundsystem played their last show in 2011, Murphy has been busy launching his own coffee and producing records, most recently Arcade Fire’s Reflektor album. But his new project, Subway Symphony, aims to benefit the subway’s 5.5 million daily riders by replacing the irritating beep with more soothing chords—which sound not unlike the loading screen for a Nintendo Wii— every time you swipe your MetroCard. And while the swipe sounds are nothing compared to the ear-shattering screech of some trains as they pull up to the platform, Murphy is petitioning the Metropolitan Transit Authority to let him create his symphony.

Each subway station would get its own jingle, Murphy told The Wall Street Journal. When you swipe your MetroCard now, the turnstile barks a familiar but “flat, unpleasant ‘beep,’ all of which are slightly out of tune with each other,” Murphy writes on the Subway Symphony website, which he compares to “a dissonant rubbing-styrofoam-on-glass squeak in stations all around New York City.”

What I propose to do is to create a series of 3 to 5 note sequences, all unique, one for each station in the subway system,” Murphy writes. “These sequences will be part of an intersecting larger piece of music, which would run from station to station, and cross one another as, say, the 4, 5, 6 line (one musical piece) intersects with the L, N, R, Q and W (another musical piece) at Union Square.  At each turnstile in Union Square, as you tap your new tap and ride card, a pleasant bell tone will sound, in one of a set of possible notes, all related to that station’s note sequence.  The effect would be that at the busiest times, like rush hour, what was once cacophony would now be music,” Murphy told The Wall Street Journal.

Murphy hopes a softer sounding subway will make riders a little happier, particularly when confronted with issues like a dead shark or odorless anti-terrorism gas on their travels.

Murphy said he’s floated the idea for about 15 years, but was prompted into action by the recent announcement that the MTA will be phasing out their iconic blue and yellow cards, replacing them with a tap and ride system. The Journal reports that the current turnstile tones exist to accommodate blind passengers; as one beep means “go,” and a double beep signals “swipe again.” The dreaded triple tone is for an insufficient fare.

The MTA told The Wall Street Journal that “we really don’t care” about the unpleasant subway sound system, saying it the dissonance is caused by a “natural technical variation.” Adam Lisberg, an MTA spokesman, did say that Murphy’s plan “is a very cool idea,” and that he isn’t the first person to propose the idea. But the subway has 3,289 turnstiles, and taking each one out of service for fine tuning it isn’t something the MTA wants to do, “for an art project,” Lisberg said.

Still, Murphy is determined to make the city “a nicer place to be.” Despite the MTA saying it will be too expensive and time-consuming, Murphy's will be an inexpensive project if combined with the already planned turnstile renovations. Murphy failed to secure a meeting with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but is more hopeful about meeting with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.