While driving in Japan you may see a treble clef curiously gracing a road sign or painted right on the asphalt, and then hear a shaky tune resonating through the vehicle. These musical roads can also be found in the United States, South Korea, and Denmark, although Japan is really the hub for humming highways with over 20 musical roads in the country.
Shizuo Shinoda accidentally scraped some markings into a road with a bulldozer and drove over them, and realized that it was possible to create tunes depending on the depth and spacing of the grooves. In 2007, the Hokkaido National Industrial Research Institute, which had previously worked on a system using infra-red lights to detect dangerous road surfaces, refined Shinoda’s designs to create the Melody Road. They used the same concept of cutting grooves into the concrete at specific intervals and found the closer the grooves are, the higher the pitch of the sound; while grooves which are spaced farther apart create lower pitched sounds.
There are many permanently paved 250 m stretches of Melody Roads including the one in Hokkaido, another in Wakayama where a car can produce the Japanese ballad “Miagete goran yoru no hoshi wo” by Kyu Sakamoto, one in Shizuoka Prefecture on the ascending drive up Mount Fuji, and another in Gunma, which consists of 2,559 grooves cut into a 175 m stretch of existing roadway and produces the tune of “Memories of Summer”.
Not all musical roads are equal in their effectiveness; sometimes the melody is distorted into an off-key unpleasantness. You can listen to a few and decide for yourself:
The first known musical road, the Asphaltophone, was created in October 1995 in Gylling, Østjylland, Denmark, by Steen Krarup Jensen and Jakob Freud-Magnus, two Danish artists. The Asphaltophone is made from a series of raised pavement markers, similar to Botts’ dots, spaced out at intermittent intervals so that as a vehicle drives over the markers, the vibrations caused by the wheels can be heard inside the vehicle.
Traffic management isn’t usually a very friendly business. Signs in stark Helvetica instruct you when to stop, go, and turn; and ocassionally flash at you if you’re going too fast. In New Mexico, however, one road is operating a more reward-based approach to speed limits. In October 2014, the village of Tijeras, New Mexico (just east of Albuquerque), gained national notoriety for a nearby “musical road”, a two-lane stretch of U.S. Highway 66 (Route 66) with grooves in the roadway (rumble strips) arranged to cause the sounds of a famous song (“America the Beautiful”) to be heard when vehicles drive on it at 45 mph. Funded by the National Geographic Society, the project was coordinated with the New Mexico Department of Transportation who described the project as a way to get drivers to slow down. Tune in:
Below: A vector of the Japanese Melody Road road sign (and other international oddities) will be available in 2016 in the professional design reference ‘Official Signs & icons 3’ by Ultimate Symbol.