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Why California’s Musical Road Sounds Terrible


If you drive down a certain stretch of highway
in the California desert, you will hear music. It’s supposed to sound a little bit like this: [William Tell Overture, by Rossini] but instead, it sounds like this. [William Tell Overture, by Rossini,
but badly out of tune] That was the musical road
of Lancaster, California. And as you may have heard,
it’s a little bit out of tune. A lot of money was spent on that road. It was a publicity stunt for a car company
who wanted to show off how clever they are. And doing the calculations for
something like that isn’t really difficult. A musical note is a vibration in the air at
a particular frequency. And those vibrations can be made by
a violin string or synthesised by a computer or – in this case – made by vehicle tyres
hitting grooves in the road. The closer the grooves are,
the faster the vibrations, and the higher the note. So take the speed limit, divide by the frequency of the note you want, and that’s how often there should be a groove
in the road. And if people travel at the wrong speed, well,
it shouldn’t really matter. It’ll just be like slowing down or speeding up
any other piece of music: it’ll be in the wrong key, but it’ll still
sound right to most people’s ears. It won’t sound like that mess. So what went wrong? At this point, I am indebted to David Simmons-Duffin, an assistant professor of physics at Caltech, whose interests include Quantum Field Theories
and playing baroque violin. Because he was, as far as I can tell, the very first person to figure out
what went wrong: and the problem was probably the English language. Whoever did the calculations said that the
grooves should be so far apart. Let’s say, four inches for the first note. And they meant there should be
a groove every four inches. But whoever gave the instructions
to the work crew said that the grooves should be
“four inches apart”. And that was interpreted as four inches between
the end of one groove and the start of the next one. They didn’t include
the width of the groove itself. But your ears definitely do include it. The highest note on that section of
the William Tell Overture should be one octave higher than the lowest. That means the frequency should be doubled, and that the grooves should be
half the distance apart. And they are: if you don’t include
the width of the groove itself. That error means that every note is distorted
not by a fraction of its value, like if you’re travelling at the wrong speed, but by a constant amount: by the width of
the grooves. The higher the note, the greater the effect
of that distortion. And the result is the mess that you are about
to hear for a second time. And the really strange part? This is the second musical road
built in Lancaster, California. The first one, built by the car company, was
too close to residents, who complained about the constant noise. And probably this note here. So the city paved over it and rebuilt it… to the exact, same, wrong blueprints. That’s a take. That is a take. Right there. And in order to celebrate that take, I am
going to put my foot down. This is an SUV. It doesn’t, er… it doesn’t do that.

Stephen Childs

100 Comments

  1. in hungary there is a road which is similar to this but here it sounds like the original song, so we did better job (strangely)

  2. My dad’s old job was right by there. We used to drive on it all the time. This made me cry🤍😌

  3. The efficiencies of government and/or groups of people. "A person is smart, people are dumb".

  4. In NM there is a road that plays the national anthem just like how that road does but it actually sounds amazing

  5. At least the road has something unique about it, roads here have dead rats on it

  6. This demonic tune sounds like Satan and his army are marching towards you.

  7. That's nothing, you will get biggest bass drops in India and you will also hear God's plan.

  8. I’m just thinking if they going to do this musical notes to the shoulders of the highways and freeways

  9. I don’t understand and I don’t live in america but I’m still watching

  10. No, they got it correct. Sounds like La Bama. Welcome to the new CaliMexifornica.

  11. it sounds a bit like "ultimate", that song from the water bottle challenge

  12. I've driven over this exact piece of road in Lancaster and the tuning really bothered me! Glad to see a proper explanation of why! 🤣

  13. Leave it to California to get it wrong more than once! LMAO

  14. now someone HAS to do this but with old town road on the road named old town road

  15. at least it was a car company wasting its own money, and not the State of California spending the money it took straight from everyone's paychecks. Well, this is at most only half true.

  16. I kinda like it’s devilish music sounds like a 1980s video game boss battle

  17. Where it went wrong was that people there drive on the wrong side of the road hobviously

  18. I thought this was designed for a specific Honda with a specific wheel base…?

  19. Don't worry about drugs and homeless and the crime let's builds musical instead

  20. Wouldn't want to buy a car that has been built by the same engineers who designed this road.

  21. Imagine not knowing 8t existed and when you drive over it you think "Why do I hear boss music?"

  22. The Earth is dying, Tuhhh uh no! Yo this road can sing, not good though. Now what's wrong with the difference?

  23. Did nobody factor in everyone's tires, vehicle designed for noise reduction, and weight of the vehicle flowing across?

  24. That and they didnt even it out for two sets of wheels… there is a note for each time the wheel crosses one yet there are two sets of wheels on a car, therefore your hitting other notes at the same time and it sounds terrible.

  25. Watching this with captions on and when it played the actual sound of the road it read [William Tell Overture, by Rossini, but badly out of tune]

  26. Because its California. If they can't even handle needles and poop on the streets what do you expect

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